Thursday, November 27, 2008

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE in glorious black-and-white!

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, minutes that blew me away in the way only a great, well-constructed specimen of cinema can blow away a devout lover of cinema. I was hopelessly hooked but hopelessly ill 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--I think it's one of the fifty-or-so best horror pictures ever made. 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, a mystery 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 right 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. It's a circus of light and shadows, with Siodmak, the ringmaster, deftly stage-managing what he allows us to see and leaving us to guess about what we may not. Used successfully, this taps into basic primordial fears of the dark. Skillfully manipulated, darkness is made the living, moving embodiment of those fears of the unknown. We aren't merely afraid of it though. We're of two minds about it because we're taught from childhood that our fears of it are silly and irrational and most of the time that's proven correct. Most of the time, there's nothing in that darkness except an empty room. But sometimes, there are very bad things in it indeed; things that lurk there with fell intent, things that can reach out and lay hands upon you before you even know anything is there. If we allow ourselves to give in to it, the conflict between our instincts and our experience creates an anxiety that makes a movie like this 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 is, twenty years before Mario Bava invented cinematic gialli, 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 hated 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.

Not all of it though. 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. An affliction of this sort effectively cuts one 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), which is definitely one of my favorite movies, 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 the first step toward a cure.

--j.

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