Past Event

The Spiral Staircase

March 26, 2022
1:00 PM - 3:00 PM
Lenfest Center for the Arts, 615 W. 129 St., New York, NY 10027 Katharina Otto-Bernstein Screening Room (Second Floor)

1946 / 83 mins / b/w
Dir. Robert Siodmak / Sc. Mel Dinelli / Cine. Nicholas Musuraca
Cast: Ethel Barrymore, George Brent, Dorothy McGuire
35mm print courtesy of UCLA
Introduced by Ann Douglas, Columbia University

“Conflicts that Freeze Your Emotions! Suspense that Takes Your Breath!”

A period noir about a serial killer who practices eugenics by preying upon disabled women, Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase has been read as an anti-Nazi allegory. If so, however, the film’s allegory slyly implicates America in the self-same ideologies by making a number of references to arch-eugenicist Theodore Roosevelt.

Siodmak’s stake in these themes was tragically personal: He had left his home country of Germany after his 1933 film Brennendes Geheimnis (The Burning Secret) was specifically targeted by Josef Goebbels. His younger brother Curt also made his way to America, where he established himself as a successful screenwriter and sci-fi novelist. Another brother, Roland, failed to find passage out of Europe and committed suicide.

For The Spiral Staircase, Siodmak was loaned from his home studio of Universal to RKO, where he found himself working with a network of new collaborators who informed the film’s unusual generic hybridity. The Spiral Staircase is part Gothic woman’s picture (it was initially put into development by woman’s film specialist and former RKO production head David O. Selznick) and part expressionist horror (cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca had lensed a number of Val Lewton’s B horror films at RKO). The film has also been cited as a precursor to the slasher film, thanks to the innovative point-of-view camerawork, which anticipates John Carpenter’s Halloween by over 30 years. As Variety opined: “Fascinating use is made of the camera to make it nearly as potent a force as the action itself in creating [an] eerie background.”