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Spiral Staircase, The

By happy coincidence, the reissue of Hitchcock’s Vertigo also sees the arrival of a new print of Robert Siodmak’s brilliant 1946 thriller about a manic killer who dedicates himself to beauty by ridding the world of maimed or disfigured women. A seriously underrated director, Siodmak was know as ‘the German Hitchcock’, and for good reason. The Spiral Staircase has themes and motifs in common with Vertigo. There are traumatised figures in both, and also a shared concern with the ambiguity of seeing (complete with extreme close-ups of watching eyes). Both films have as a key motif the image of a whirlpool or vortex into which the characters are drawn. As critic Tom Milne has observed of Siodmak’s film, ‘Hitchcock couldn’t have bettered the casual mastery with which the opening defines not just time and place (small town, turn of the century) but the themes of voyeurism and entrapment as a carriage draws up outside a hotel, the townsfolk assemble inside for a silent picture show, and the camera lifts to a room above, where a crippled girl is being watched by a malevolently glaring hidden eye as she undresses. This first murder, discreetly executed as the girl pulls her dress over her head and we see her arms convulsively cross in agony, introduces a note of expressionism that Siodmak uses sparingly but with unfailing elegance throughout as the shadows close in on Dorothy McGuire’s mute, terrified heroine. It’s one of the undoubted masterpieces of the Gothic mode, even if the happy ending comes more than a shade too pat.’

U.S.A, 1946.
83 mins.

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