Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Spiral Staircase and women under siege

"A role so unusual, so compelling, so fraught with emotional power no other actress would dare play it! An inspiring portrayal, destined to become her most distinguished screen triumph!"

This bit of hyperbole is uttered by the narrator of the trailer for The Spiral Staircase, a 1945 film about a mute live-in caretaker who must fend off a serial killer -- a tough thing to do when your elderly employer is bedridden, the housekeeper is tanked on brandy and you are physiologically unable to shout for backup. Dorothy McGuire stars as Helen Campel, the mute woman, and Ethel Barrymore and Elsa Lanchester are the elderly employer and the housekeeper. The killer targets women with disabilities. Muteness is one of the things he will not suffer, so he goes after Campel. Weird, huh?

Contrary to the trailer's narrator, Joan Crawford would dare play the role. She pursued it, but Helen Campel ultimately went to McGuire, who would snag an Oscar nomination for Gentleman's Agreement two years later. McGuire comes off as an earthy ingenue, her cheek structure unnaturally wide and her overall pale, expansive countenance an ideal beacon of emotion as well as reflector of set lighting. She does plenty of smiling and fretting. The climax has her flitting about the house, from shadowy hall to shadowy hall and with only lightning to illuminate her silent terror. It takes a particular talent to pull off a mute performance, and McGuire sidesteps emotive mugging in favor of patient, reserved reactions to the compounding danger of her situation. This probably is her "most distinguished screen triumph," even though she was 29 years old and only in her sixth movie. In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson takes a more modulated approach and defines McGuire as "tolerant and sweet-faced."

I can't remember why I netflix'd The Spiral Staircase, but I'm glad I did. It brings up several talking points:

1. Hitchcock is a common denominator, as is novelist Ethel Lina White. Directed by German Robert Siodmak, The Spiral Staircase was released at the climax of Alfred Hitchcock's early career, and borrows from him the novelty of restricting a thriller to a confined space (Lifeboat came out the year before). I bet Hitchcock admired the film and appropriated the ominousness of a serpentine staircase for crucial scenes in Vertigo 13 years later. The Spiral Staircase was based on a novel by the British crime writer Ethel Lina White, who also provided the source material for Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes seven years earlier.

2. I love the "Woman under Siege" genre. A malicious male stalks the territory of a heroine, who defends her home until a battle is unavoidable. Think Jodie Foster in Panic Room, Sigourney Weaver in Copycat and Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark (which will be shown at Screen on the Green on the National Mall on July 30). The latter two women sport some kind of handicap -- Weaver has crippling agoraphobia and Hepburn is blind -- which adds another layer of suspense to the confrontation: woman usurps personal disability and triumphs over aggressive male. Gender issues aside, these roles are generally strong showcases for women because it places them at the center of a narrative that tosses varied stimuli their way. I can't think of a Woman under Siege movie that came before The Spiral Staircase, can you? Was this the first of its genre? What other subsequent examples are there?

3. Mutes in movies always reap high praise. Usually you're guaranteed an Oscar (Holly Hunter in The Piano, Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God, Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker, Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda) or at least a nomination (Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown). Plus, the critics go nuts:

Richard Corliss at Time: "Samantha Morton, as Emmet's 'mute orphan half-wit' of a girlfriend, is the sweet revelation. Rarely has a performer mined such complex and potent emotion from such simple materials: a smile, a shrug, an attentive winsomeness."

Owen Gleiberman at EW: "[Holly] Hunter is robbed of her voice -- the character she plays is mute -- and this seeming constriction has liberated her as an actress. ... [She] has an austere, powerful presence, like that of the great silent-film actresses."

Dorothy McGuire didn't get an Oscar nomination for her performance in The Spiral Staircase, but Linda Rasmussen has this to say the All Movie Guide: "Dorothy McGuire is exquisite as the innocent, sweet Helen and gives a totally convincing performance in the difficult role. She uses her expressive face to perfectly convey Helen's emotions, fear and ultimate bravery."

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