Sat 29 Nov 2008
ETHEL LINA WHITE – The Spiral Staircase. Ward Lock, UK, hc, 1933; Harper & Row, US, hc, both as Some Must Watch. Harper & Brothers, 1941. Published as The Spiral Staircase. World, 1946 as a movie tie-in to the film of that title: RKO, 1946 (Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore). Remade: Raven Films, 1975 (Jacqueline Bisset, Christopher Plummer, John Phillip Law); and as a TV movie: Fox, 2000 (Nicollette Sheridan, Judd Nelson, Alex McArthur). Paperback reprint, as The Spiral Staircase, Popular Library #120, 1946; and as #60-2381, late 1960s?
It is a dark and very stormy night as the novel opens, for a terrible gale howls around Professor Sebastian’s rambling but solidly built house, twelve miles from the nearest village. The entire countryside is gripped in terror after five local girls have been murdered, and once darkness falls few people venture abroad.
Protagonist Helen Capel works as “lady-help” to the scholarly professor; his chilly sister Blanche, who is firmly under the thumb of their invalid mother Lady Warren, who may or may have killed her husband “by accident” years before; and sinister, mannish Nurse Barker. There is also the professor’s son Newton, married to and insanely jealous of his flirtatious wife Simone, who has her eye on a fling with the professor’s resident pupil Stephen Rice.
Mr and Mrs Oates, faithful servants, round out the residents of the house, one of those rambling edifices with a warren of cellars, many rooms, and two staircases — and not all of it fitted with electric light.
After learning of another murder committed not far from the house, Professor Warren announces that as a matter of safety everyone must stay inside and nobody is to be admitted under any circumstances that night. But just as he gives this order, there is a thunderous knocking at the front door….
My verdict: The Spiral Staircase was originally published as Some Must Watch, a much better title given the plot hinges on efforts by the nine people locked in the house to protect themselves and each other during a long and extremely stressful night.
The manner in which one by one they fail in the task is extremely clever, for the reader cannot be certain if events come about naturally or if someone is pulling strings to arrange matters. I cannot say more for fear of spoiling an excellent work in which tension increases every chapter, characters are not always what they seem, and expectations based on behaviour turn out to be completely false.
I read this book in a few hours and regret I’m not just beginning it again! In fact, I name it without hesitation as my top read this month.
[EDITORIAL UPDATE] As you’ve probably already noted, there were three film versions of this book, all duly cited in Al Hubin’s Revised Crime Fiction IV or its online Addenda. While searching for possible additional details, I found a fourth: a 60-minute NBC production telecast on 4 October 1961 starring Edie Adams, Eddie Albert, Lillian Gish, Jeffrey Lynn, Hayley Mills, Elizabeth Montgomery and Gig Young.
That’s quite an array of acting talent, but at the moment that’s all I know about the film. It seems to have been a special presentation, but it’s possible it was an episode of some other overall series, but which one, if any, I do not know.
In any case, it will appear in the next installment of the Addenda.
[UPDATE] Later the same day. I’ve found it — the overall series, I mean. Theatre ’62 does not have its own entry on IMDB, but BFI describes it as “a series of TV specials commemorating the films of producer David O. Selznick.”
In this series, seven live adaptations of Selznick movies were presented:
4 Oct 1961. The Spiral Staircase.
19 Nov 1961. Intermezzo. Jean-Pierre Aumont, Ingrid Thulin.
10 Dec 1961. Notorious. Joseph Cotten, Barbara Rush.
14 Jan 1962. The Farmer’s Daughter. Lee Remick, Peter Lawford.
11 Feb 1962. Spellbound. Hugh O’Brian, Maureen O’Hara.
11 Mar 1962. The Paradine Case. Viveca Lindfors, Richard Basehart, Boris Karloff.
8 Apr 1962. Rebecca. James Mason, Joan Hackett, Nina Foch.
It’s doubtful if any of these exist, but wouldn’t it be nice?