Thursday, November 27, 2008

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE in glorious black-and-white! 2.0

I discovered Robert Siodmak's THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946) a little more than a year ago on Turner Classic Movies. I was deathly ill one night and got up at some ungodly hour to violently unburden my poor roiling innards. I sat on the couch afterwards, turned on the tv and caught the first 15-or-so minutes of it and it put the sort of hook into me that a great, well-constructed specimen of cinema can put into a devout lover of same. I was hopelessly ill though and, furiously, had to cut it off and return to my bed--one of those moments when one really despises one's mortal weaknesses--but I got up the next morning and immediately sought out the DVD release for purchase.

When it arrived, I hungrily devoured it and was so impressed I then sat through it again. The movie ticks like a clock, one of the all-time great horror movies. I couldn't believe I'd never heard of it. I'm sure I'd read of it over the years but I had no memory of ever having done so. It just came out of nowhere for me and I was genuinely astonished that something so good and so high-profile (a major studio picture) could have escaped my notice for so long.

The black-and-white photography is thematic. There's a mystery afoot in THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, one involving family secrets, hidden history, a creepy old house and a killer on the loose. We're all lost in the dark with our heroine until the final reel. Then, as the mystery unravels, things get really dark!

The movie is a showcase for the expressive use of black-and-white photography. The film was made at the height of the film noir era and reflects those influences in every frame but while noir can have a strong horror element, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE is the full treatment. Siodmack weaves a stylized cinematic dreamscape of light and shadow, deftly stage-managing what he allows us to see and leaving us to guess--and worry--about what we may not. There may not be anything in all that darkness and we all know it's silly to fear the dark, right? But then again, something feels very wrong and it's getting worse. Let the movie take you where it wants you to go and the anxiety that generates is very effective. Even if we maintain some distance between ourselves and the film though, we can appreciate the artistry of it.

I was really impressed with just about everything in the movie, which was well ahead of its time. Among other things, the film, which was made twenty years before Mario Bava invented cinematic gialli, is exactly what an Italian giallo should theoretically be but never is. Siodmak's direction, which is what initially hooked me on the picture, is wildly inventive--crazy angles, creepy images, an atmosphere of stifling dread. I love it, and study it often.

It's a movie that had to be made in b&w--it wouldn't have worked in color. I've always disliked hearing b&w called "monochrome." Actually, "black-and-white" itself is a misnomer. It isn't just black and white--it really is another sort of color palette. When it comes to making a film, the choice of color or b&w isn't, as is to often assumed, neutral. A director and cinematographer design the look of a film around whatever palette they're going to be using. As John Huston put it, "I shot in black and white the same way a sculptor chooses between clay, bronze or marble." It's confounding that so many people--including nearly all of the misguided souls who agitate for "colorization" of old b&w films--should be so apparently oblivious to so obvious a thing. I've long held that a skilled director and cinematographer can get as much "color" out of the format as they can from outright color stock. THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE is a prime example of this.

An unfortunate phenomenon of recent years is a growing lack of appreciation for b&w cinema, particularly among young people (and I say that as if I'm some white-haired old duffer myself--I'm definitely not). I worked in video rentals for a number of years before the vampire chain-stores entirely sucked the blood out of the trade and I often ran across this peculiar malady. My early impression was pure old-fogey-ism; this distaste for b&w wasn't directed at b&w photography itself but at the implications of a film being done in b&w. It suggests something older, something more dialogue-driven, something bereft of today's rapid-fire editing and computer animation and something without an explosion or fight every two minutes and thus overly challenging to those without attention spans. Old-fogey-ist sentiment though this may be, I still suspect it accounts for most of the aversion I've observed.

But not all of it. I'm not so much the old fogey that I confuse a comfort with the familiar (contemporary films) with the idiocy of the terminally unwise (in which the past is held in contempt). Not everyone afflicted with B&W Aversion Syndrome is hopeless. I have, in fact, personally managed the recoveries of more than a few of its victims.

Think of what those victims miss out on. Their affliction effectively cuts them off from a large portion of the history of cinema, including many of the greatest films ever made. No CASABLANCA. No CITIZEN KANE. No SEVEN SAMURAI. And no SPIRAL STAIRCASE. I was recently watching the new 75th anniversary DVD re-release of Karl Freund's THE MUMMY (1932), a film of which I'm particularly fond, and some remarks on the new commentary track about the failure of younger viewers to appreciate films of that sort made me want to write something that would express my own profound, sincere love of same and maybe even do it with sufficient flair to convince those afflicted with this malady--those who aren't terminal, that is--to give their condition a second thought or two. Perhaps that will become a recurring theme here. Perhaps these comments on THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE are, for someone out there, the first step toward a cure.

--j.

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