“The Spiral Staircase” (1946, directed by Robert Siodmak): Siodmak began his career in Germany and brought the genius for expressionism that he shared with Josef von Sternberg and Fritz Lang to his American films. Shadow-draped mood was really the star of “The Spiral Staircase,” despite a beautifully understated performance by Dorothy McGuire and a feisty one by Ethel Barrymore.
There has been a serial killer in a small town in turn-of-the-century Vermont. His victims have been women with infirmities; a developmentally challenged girl and a crippled woman. Helen (McGuire) has never spoken a word since a childhood trauma. She works in the home of the wealthy Warren family and the bedridden matriarch (Barrymore) is concerned for her safety. Rightfully so.
A locked front door doesn’t seem to be enough to calm Mrs. Warren’s fear because of her suspicions as to who the killer might be. Most of the movie unfolds during a raging thunderstorm in the overstuffed, tassel-laden Gothic spookiness of the Warren mansion. The killer sees no mouth reflected in the glass when Helen looks into a mirror.
I have watched this film half a dozen times and still have the urge to call out to Helen that someone is lurking under the spiral staircase that leads to (where else?) the creepy basement.
“The Trouble With Harry” (1955, directed by Alfred Hitchcock): The director, who disliked location filming because it afforded him less control, reportedly enjoyed his sojourn in Vermont until the changeable weather necessitated packing up boxes and boxes of autumn leaves and transporting them back to sound stages at Paramount. The sequences that were actually filmed in Vermont by Hitch’s longtime cinematographer, Robert Burks, give the viewer — even a seasoned old Vermonter like me — a new appreciation for the beauty of our state.
A child (Jerry Mathers, who went on to immortality as Beaver Cleaver) finds Harry’s body in the woods and runs home to tell his mother (Shirley MacLaine in her first film). As the day progresses, a number of others become entangled in the question of what to do with Harry. Some of them think that they may have inadvertently caused his death.
“Harry” is one of the movies Hitchcock cited as a personal favorite and it contains what he considered one of the best lines from any of his films. When Mildred Natwick discovers Edmund Gwenn dragging Harry’s corpse to a place of concealment, she casually asks him, “What seems to be the trouble, Captain?”
“The Last Hurrah” (1958, directed by John Ford): Ford was the perfect choice to direct this warm-hearted, moving story based on Edwin O’Connor’s novel about the final political campaign of Boston mayor Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy). (The name of the city is never specified in the film, but it is a little like not naming San Francisco when the Golden Gate is in the background.) The director’s love of all things Irish is very much in evidence.
The supporting cast is largely comprised of Ford’s stock company of peerless character actors. Donald Crisp is Cardinal Martin Burke. Basil Rathbone plays Norman Cass, Skeffington’s arch enemy. Anna Lee, John Carradine, Willis Bouchey, Wallace Ford, Jeffrey Hunter and James Gleason are all veterans of Ford films. Jane Darwell, his Oscar-winning Ma Joad from “The Grapes of Wrath,” is delightful as Delia Boylan, a constant presence at local funerals who, perhaps, enjoys herself a bit too much.
“The Great Race” (1965, directed by Blake Edwards): Mr. Edwards was famous (or perhaps infamous as far as producers were concerned) for going over schedule and way over budget. “The Great Race” was no exception. The movie, with a $3 million original budget, ended up costing Warner Bros. $12 million, making it the most expensive comedy ever made up to that time.
It was inspired by a Saturday morning kids television program and dedicated to “Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.” Tony Curtis played The Great Leslie, always clad in immaculate white (even through most of a gargantuan pie fight). Jack Lemmon played the dastardly, black-garbed Professor Fate who, with his bungling sidekick Max (Peter Falk), tries to sabotage Leslie and win a car race between New York and Paris. I have always wondered about the intervening ocean, but this is a Blake Edwards farce, not a National Geographic documentary.
It is an episodic film, both in terms of the narrative itself and the success of each section. There’s a mammoth saloon brawl that is very funny and then an extended “Prisoner of Zenda” sequence that isn’t. The aforementioned pie fight took five days to shoot, utilized 4,000 pies, and was one of the reasons that Natalie Wood, who was unrecognizable after it was over, cited “The Great Race” as her least favorite film.
Even with the stumbles, the film provides a lot of good, old-fashioned laughs. Dorothy Provine, as a barroom singer named Lily Olay, and Arthur O’Connell as a harried newspaper editor, are delightful. Russell Harlan’s photography and Henry Mancini’s music, including a lovely ballad called “The Sweetheart Tree,” were nominated for Oscars.
If Mr. Edwards tended to go over budget, at least it is apparent where all that money went.