As the film begins, the camera dangles precariously from the top to give us a bird’s eye view of the spiral staircase in all its glory. We watch a woman attempt to descend the stairs. She’s scared – it’s stormy outside, the shadows of the trees lit by lightning form hungry shadows on the glass of the stairs – but despite her fears she makes it to the landing. Minutes long, this tale’s prologue establishes from the start of the film, The Spiral Staircase, directed by Robert Siodmak, that the titular spiral staircase will be as big a protagonist as Dorothy McGuire’s Helen. Indeed, stairs are one of the perfect containers in film used to amplify a scene using visual metaphors. Of sunset boulevard (1950) to The Truman Show (1998), films of the second half of the 20th century saw the staircase metaphor become an integral part of cinema. Before we continue to discuss how the film uses the trope of the titular spiral staircase as its protagonist, it’s important to know the temporal significance of it.
One of the most popular uses of the staircase in the first half of the 20th century is the Cubist painting, Nude Descending the Staircase No. 1 and No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp. No. 2 revolutionized the concept of space in paintings, depicting dynamic movement in art. The vertical gaze at the nude and its cascading walk down the stairs with light and shadow playing on the human body served as a landmark in the early years of film development. Not to mention that Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky has long established the staircase as a space of possibilities in literature, where Raskolnikov makes the most important decisions. The staircase in this book also plays a primary role in the execution of the murder. Further on, the staircase and its multiple meanings find echoes in the film, The Chess Game of the Wind (1976) by Iranian director Mohammad Reza Aslani. The constant rise and fall of morality, the use of landings with equipped mirrors, and the climactic scene are central to the development of the main plot. XJ Kennedy’s 1985 ekphrastic piece, Nude Descending a Staircase, tells us how Duchamp’s preoccupation with painting and the staircase, in general, was central to 20th-century modernity.
Located inside the house, the spiral staircase serves to connect as well as distinctly decouple the politics of spatiality within the house. A staircase leads to Mrs. Warren’s bedrooms, where she is bedridden, while another staircase descends into the pantry in the basement of the house. Mrs. Warren is the matriarchal head of the family and her bedrooms, being on the top floor, allude to her status, carrying almost a religious connotation of having to climb a flight of stairs – call it a stairway to heaven – to reach her . The other staircase leading to the pantry below is intended to be accessible to the servants of the house. If we know our Downton Abbey (2010 – 2015) inside out, we have seen enough to easily make this difference. Additionally, the stairs serving as the demarcation of space are also clear from the start of the film when Helen attends a film screening at a local inn and a woman is murdered upstairs. Thus, the film tackles the idea that entertainment and murder, morality and madness are two sides of the same coin, perhaps separated by a flight of stairs.
The difference between the two flights of stairs in Mrs. Warren’s house is significant in how they are presented in the film. While the one leading to Mrs. Warren’s apartments is clean and well-lit, the one leading to the pantry is dark and seems creaky. We also have two parallel sets of scenes of Helen both descending the flight of stairs to drive home this distinction. In the opening scene, when Helen comes down the stairs from Mrs. Warren’s, lightning, thunder, and shadows on the adjacent window panes create an atmosphere of fear around her. In another scene, as Helen descends the other staircase in search of Blanche, the monstrously sharp shadows forming behind her are the result of a lit lamp she is carrying in her hand. The second image is creepier, almost reminiscent of the use of shadows in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
That the stairs delimit the classrooms is obvious; they also help to distinguish the world of the handicapped from that of the able-bodied. Mrs. Warren is bedridden and her bedroom is a safe space for the mute Helen. Helen’s descent down the stairs in the opening scene is like an escalation into the real world, which is deeply intolerant of the doubly marginalized – women and the disabled. Interestingly, this staircase also serves as the site of the highest point. Mrs. Warren is positioned at the top of the stair landing, pointing her gun at her stepson and the serial killer, Albert, who is trying to chase Helen down the stairs. A terrified Hélène is on one of the steps of the staircase, suspended between these two landings and the two great morals which govern the plot of the film. Albert’s death at the bottom of this staircase also hints that he will never be able to climb the moral ladder after choosing the path of murder. Moreover, his inevitable moral descent has already been hinted at when he descends the second flight of stairs to the basement and kills Blanche out of jealousy, an anomaly among his usual victims. It is clear that Albert will not be able to recover from the rings of this spiraling morality. The theatricality of the climax stays with us long after the film is over, not least because the stairs help add tension to the plot by complicating a domestic space.
The question arises: is “The Spiral Staircase” an intersectional feminist film? It seeks to focus on the murders of doubly marginalized women by a self-proclaimed moralist, an able-bodied heterosexual male, and ultimately has this murderer die at the hands of a woman. Mrs. Warren is an easy precursor to the mother-rescuing-woman-in-danger figure popularized by Angela Carter in her book, The Bloody Chamber (1979). The film also seeks to shed light on the common thread of female camaraderie that exists in society – an essential marker of feminist thrillers and horror films of the current era. Although most of the female characters are caricatured, and the occasional male director’s gaze is worth a look, this is a 1940s movie that deserves its fair share of accolades for trying not to downplay women’s agency in a thriller. Perhaps it’s the spiral staircase that helps position women at viewpoints and gives them an edge over the course of the story. We are not complaining.