The Spiral Staircase (RKO-Radio), a murder mystery, knowingly paced by Director Robert Siodmak and shrewdly acted by an expert cast, including Ethel Barrymore, is choice, eerie entertainment.
Miss Barrymore has made only two other talking pictures (Rasputin and the Empress in 1932, None but the Lonely Heart in 1944). She spends most of this one propped up in bed. Alternately purring and bellowing in a voice not unlike Brother Lionel's, she is superbly effective as the ailing, aging mistress of a huge plush-and-black-walnut New England mansion. A gay-dog only son and a sobersided professor-stepson (George Brent) make their home with her. Residents and visitors in her house include such odd or frightened people as a cook (Elsa Lanchester), a trained nurse (Sara Allgood), and a strangely inhibited young woman (Dorothy McGuire), who has been unable to speak a word since childhood.
Versatile Actress McGuire (Claudia, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) plays the mute girl to a fare-you-well, finally managing to stammer some words into an antique wall telephone after the shock of seeing the last of a series of murders. However improbable such a recovery may be in a medical sense, it makes excellent cinema sense. So do a dozen other scenes in the picture.
Smart, balding, 45-year-old Cinema-director Siodmak is rapidly becoming Hollywood's top horror man. He looks, talks and acts like a European import, but was actually born in Shelby County, Tenn. Taken to Europe by his parents when he was an infant, he returned to the U.S. in 1939 as a veteran director of German and French filmsmostly comedies and musicalswhich starred such notables as Emil Jannings, Maurice Chevalier, Harry Baur. But West Coast studios weren't interested. The break came a couple of years ago when he made Phantom Lady with Producer Joan Harrison (TIME, Feb. 28, 1944), followed up with The Suspect and Uncle Harry.
Siodmak is no lover of heavy horror, but the West Coast has him typed. He is now regarded with considerable awe by the Hollywood oracles as "the new master of suspense." His next picture: a psycho-thriller currently called The Dark Mirror, with Olivia De Havilland and Lew Ayres.
Tars and Spars (Columbia) introduces to the screen a likable blond zany named Sid Caesar. This otherwise routine little wartime musicomedy is about life & love in the U.S. Coast Guardi.e., another late-arriving salute to the services, featuring singing Tar Alfred Drake, dancing Tar Marc Platt and Cinemactress Janet Blair, who is pretty and Spar-slim in a seagoing blouse and skirt. The upshot of the whole thing is predictable until Tar Sid Caesar, a product of Yonkers and the City of New York, lets loose with the most overwhelming spate of gobbledygook since the Johnstown Flood. He may possibly have caught the act of another fast doubletalker named Danny Kaye, but his scrambled-eggs number is fine, his smiling pilot still better. Hail, Caesar.
Because of Him (Universal) is Hollywood whimsy of the more expensive sort. Deanna Durbin, silver-voiced and platinum-salaried ($326,491 for 1944, tops for cinemactresses), warbles her way through it with no perceptible embarrassmentwhich is more than can be said for Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone and other members of the cast.