Sunday, 16 July 2017

BITE-SIZED REVIEWS: The Spiral Staircase & Fear in the Night

Youtube is a great place for finding old Hollywood movies. Most of the movies are bad flicks that have fallen into the public domain, but occasionally you come upon something good. I went trawling a few weeks ago, and came upon a few finds.

The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1946)
One of the great thrillers of the forties, The Spiral Staircase is one of those movies that I have been looking for. Watching it on a laptop was not ideal ( and if the Auckland Film Society does a screening, I'll do another review) but it wound up being a really enjoyable watch.

Dorothy McGuire plays Helen, a mute servant woman in 1900s New England. A serial killer is on the loose in the area, and he is targeting women with disabilities. Stuck with her invalid employer and her squabbling sons in their gothic mansion, Helen is terrified that she is next on the killer's list...

Directed by the great Robert Siodmak (The Killers), The Spiral Staircase is a creepy thriller with one foot in gothic melodramas like Gaslight (the period setting; a lonely woman under threat) and the other foot in film noir (the central character with trauma; the villain's perverse psychology). 

Despite its age, there are aspects of the film which feel surprisingly modern: the score stands out immediately. Based around an eerie high pitched tone, it feels like the score for a sixties or seventies thriller. The scenes in which the murderer stalks his victims, with their focus on a roving camera and focus, feel very reminiscent of Black Christmas and Halloween.

The film's focus on the main character's impairment is interesting, and also betrays how different attitudes were to people with well, any kind of impairment. Rendered mute by a childhood trauma, Helen is constantly badgered by other characters (including her doctor boyfriend) to speak. The characters are obsessed with fixing her, and the movie is ultimately focused on how her inability to speak works to the killer's advantage.

The reveal of the killer and the reason for his targeting of disabled people is... interesting? It's a bit of a cop-out. To be honest, the whole denouement is a bit of of a damp squib. Helen is not particularly active in destroying the villain, and literally stands by while another character shoots him dead.

Aside from an underwhelming finish, the movie is pretty solid. I was expecting more of a stripped-down genre exercise, but the cast and subplots are surprisingly dense. It ends up being more of a spin on Ten Little Indians, only with fewer characters.

Acting by the cast is strong. McGuire is an empathetic heroine, and manages to avoid too many histrionics in her portrayal of Helen. Ethel Barrymore, as Helen's employer, provides a touch of class to proceedings. Apart from these two, the cast are solid but don't really stand out.This is a movie about the direction and the atmosphere, more than the characters.

A fine melodrama, The Spiral Staircase is worth a look. As a classic exercise in suspense, it still works a treat.

Fear in the Night (Shawn Maxwell, 1947)
The acting debut of Star Trek's DeForest Kelley, Fear in the Night is a minor film noir that I've heard referenced in various books I've read on the genre. Since it's one of my favourite genres (and the movie was floating around online) I decided to check it out.

Based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window), a bank teller, Vince (Kelley) has a nightmare in which he killed a man in a strange house. During the encounter, he tears a button off the man's coat.  Upon waking, he discovers marks on his throat, blood on his shirt cuff and a button in his pocket. Terrified, Vince enlists the help of his brother-in-law Cliff (Paul Kelly), a cop, to find out if the images in his head are just bad dreams or something more real...

This movie took two goes for me to get through. I really hate watching old movies on my computer - the screen is too small to do them justice. Ever since I started going to Auckland Film Society screenings, I've really noticed how big a difference it makes. These movies were literally made to be shown on the big screen.

Most of the famous films noir are bigger budget studio efforts, like Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity, but in reality most noirs were low budget b-movies. If they were made with stars, the stars were either on the way up or on the way down. Fear in the Night is one such effort.

In many ways, low budgets are perfect for noir. The limited settings, largely shot in interiors, with a small cast, and lots of shadows (for atmosphere and to hide the cheapness of the sets) give Fear in the Night a claustrophobia that would not have ben present with a bigger canvas. Even the actors add to the overall tone -- while Kelley is famous now, he was an unknown then, and the rest of the cast were experienced supporting players. The lack of recognisable faces brings the mystery element to the fore, as Kelley struggles to figure out if he really is a murderer, or merely a player in a broader scheme.

The movie does have some flaws. The pacing is all over the place, the acting is - at best - serviceable, and there are some points where the writers clearly wrote themselves into a corner and have to drop a series of coincidences to get the characters on the right track.

Still it is atmospheric, and boasts some unsettling photographic effects which help build the tension. And while the acting is not great, the monotone intensity actually helps make the central character's plight more believable.

Overall, Fear in the Night is a decent flick, lifted by a suitably clammy atmosphere and some striking visuals. The big reveal is odd, but works with the off-kilter style the filmmakers have created. The movie's mystery is more fun than the reveal, but within the story-world I feel like the resolution actually works, even if - writing-wise - the execution is a little workmanlike.

A big success on release, writer-director Shawn Maxwell would later remake the movie as Nightmare in 1956, starring Edward G. Robinson and Kevin McCarthy.

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