Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE – Roy Webb


October 11, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Renowned producer David O. Selznick saw opportunity for a riveting, suspenseful murder thriller film based on the 1933 novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White. He purchased the film rights, and envisioned Ingrid Bergman in the lead role. His plans for production however never came to fruition as he was forced to sell the film rights to RKO Pictures in 1946 to cover the massive cost overruns of his passion project, Duel In The Sun. RKO executives gave the green light to proceed with Dore Schary placed in charge of production, and provided a modest budget of $750,000. Robert Siodmak was tasked with directing, and screenwriter Mel Dinelli was hired to adapt the novel, which resulted in a change in the film’s title, as well as shifting its setting from England to New England. A fine cast was assembled, which included Dorothy McGuire as Helen, George Brent as Professor Albert Warren, Ethel Barrymore as Mrs. Warren, Kent Smith as Dr. Arthur Parry, and Gordon Oliver as Steven Warren.

The film combines classic film noir with horror to create a riveting suspense thriller, which kept audiences on the edge of their seats. The story takes place in 1906, is set in a small town in Vermont, and explores the terror wrought by a serial killer of young women, who in each case suffer from a physical deformity or imperfection. After much intrigue and suspense, Helen, who is a mute is informed of the identity of the murderer, by the murderer himself, Professor Albert Warren who confesses that his mission is to rid humanity of the “weak and imperfect of the world”. Helen flees and becomes Albert’s next intended target. A chase ensues in the large gothic mansion ending on its spiral staircase where Albert is shot multiple times in the chest by his mother. The trauma of the shooting results in Helen screaming and regaining her ability to speak. The film was a significant commercial success, earning a profit of $1 million. Critics were in general favorable, but not effusive in their praise. It secured one Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Roy Webb was RKO Pictures resident composer who had achieved notoriety for his masterful scoring of film noir and horror films. There was never any doubt that he would be assigned to the project. For a composer noted for his film noir and horror scores, “The Spiral Staircase” presented him with all the classic requisite elements, which provide a perfect backdrop for music; fear of the unknown, frightening serial murders, a large, haunting gothic mansion with dimly lighted passageways, a dark basement only accessible by a hand-held candle holder, night scenes beset with gusts of wind, rain, lightning and deafening thunderclaps, and last but not least, a spectacular spiral staircase. As such Webb made the creative decision to augment his orchestra with the Theremin, whose eerie wailing effects he would utilize well.

For his soundscape Webb reveals mastery of his craft with an innovative and audacious scoring choice. He realized that the murderer, Professor Albert Warren was obsessed with ridding the world of young women who were either imperfect, maimed, or have a physical impediment. Siodmak used his camera to distort these imperfections when viewed from Albert’s perspective, and which triggered his psychopathy. This then was the impetus of Webb eschewing individual leitmotifs for the murderer, as well as his victims. He would instead utilize one shared leitmotif for both killer and victim. His music would be distorted using an eerie high register string tremolo joined with a wailing, not of the world Theremin. This frightening, unholy communion joined synergistically with the camera descending into the pupil of a large leering eye, reversing its angle to view the victim from the killer’s perspective, using a blurred out of focus camera shot to highlight the victim’s imperfection. The score’s second theme for Helen offers a significant juxtaposition to the psychopathy of the Murderer’s Theme. Her idyllic, free-flowing theme is feminine, graceful, and wondrously romantic, fully embracing both her physical beauty and kind heart. The third theme, is the Love Theme for Arthur and Helen, which emotes as a romance for strings. Its articulation is not ardent, but instead yearning, emoting primarily from her perspective. The impediment of her muteness causes it to struggle in the film, and never really blossom. The fourth theme is Mrs. Warren’s Theme, which speaks to her position as matron of the house. It emotes with a troubled, and inscrutable reserve by a meandering line by empathic woodwinds tenero. There is both warmth, unspoken concern, and mystery in the notes, which bely her gruff demeanor.

At present there is no commercial digital or CD release of the score. This is remarkable, sad, and frankly, unacceptable. I sincerely hope a production label re-records it for new generations of collectors and lovers of the art form. For purposes of my review, I will review the score in film context using scene descriptors and time indices. The film opens with fanfare dramatico, which supports the RKO Pictures logo. At 0:12 we flow into “Main Title” where Webb masterfully sets the tone of the film, unnerving us from the very first note. We open with the two-note stalking motif, which ushers in the ghostly wailing Theremin of the Murderer’s Theme. The camera pans down through a spiral staircase as the roll of the opening credits display as Helen begins a tentative descent. When passing by the window she recoils after a flash of lightning and a thunderclap resounds. The Murderer’s Theme resumes as she restarts her descent and at 0:53 we segue into a wonderful romantic statement of Helens Theme.

At 1:12 we enter the film proper in “The Third Murder”, a masterful score highlight, atop a graceful and carefree promenade of gentility as we see Main Street of this quaint small town. We follow a couple into the hotel, where we hear a diegetic piano rendering of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Opus 13 (1798), which supports a silent film playing in the parlor. We see Helen intently watching the film and at 2:37 the camera pans up and we ascend upstairs into the room of a young lame woman. The piano music remains present, yet its melody is muted. She closes the window as thunder rumbles and then goes to the closet to retrieve a dress. She moves off camera and the camera slowly moves into the closet supported by eerie tremolo violins joined by the ghostly wail of the Theremin. The camera focuses on a large peering eye of malevolence, and zooms in carried by a crescendo of terror, into the depths of the black pupil, where its viewing angle reverses and we see the young women donning her dress. As she covers her head and extends her hands upwards at 3:36 she gasps, her hands writhing in pain and we crest in a horrific musical climax of death as she is apparently strangled to death. We return to the parlor atop the Beethoven Sonata and see people startled by a loud thud on the ceiling and sound of broken glass. The hotel clerk runs upstairs and is joined by a frantic woman who says its room no. 9. He opens the door to find a corpse, overturned table and wind blowing through an open window.

The constable dismisses the crowd and directs Helen to get home before dark. His answer to the inquiring clerk as to the assailant is that it is the same man who committed the first two murders. Dr. Arthur Parry joins Dr. Harvey who has pronounced the victim dead from strangulation. Dr. Harvey criticizes Dr. Parry for professional discourtesy for seeing one of his patients. At 7:51 we segue into “Helen and Arthur, a beautiful score highlight, where we are graced by an extended rendering of an idyllic Helen’s Theme by strings romantico as we see her step into Arthur’s carriage, accepting his offer of a ride to the Warren residence. We hear that he has empathy for her circumstances being alone and mute. At 8:30 I discern a subtle sadness woven into the notes as he offers again to train her as a nurse and assist her in getting her voice back. He sees that she does not wish to discuss, and they continue their trip supported by her idyllic theme. The confluence of the cinematography and music creates an elegant and soothing ambiance. At 9:54 we segue into “Freddy Begs For Help” as he beseeches Dr. Parry to tend to his father. Plaintive, distressed strings support the boy’s pleas, but Dr. Parry defers due to yesterday’s criticism, mindful that he is Dr. Harvey’s patient. Yet he relents when desperately pressed by the boy. Helen gets out so Freddy can ride and as she waves goodbye as they depart carried by a happy rendering of her theme.

At 10:52 we segue into “Helen Walks Home” as we see her walking through the woods to the Warren residence supported by her theme, which blossoms for a sublime exposition. At 11:15 woodwinds sow unease as she stops and appears to have lost her way. With thunder rumbling in the distance disquieting strings join as we see tension arise in her eyes as she picks up a stick, sensing something in the bushes ahead, only to be relieved to see a rabbit. A surge of wind causes her to run and she reaches the wrought iron fence of the mansion. A downpour commences and she runs towards the front porch, passing a shadowy man, whom she does not see. She drops the house key in a puddle and at 12:39 the eerie wail of the Theremin supports the menace of an unidentified man moving towards her. As he moves in, she finds the key and runs quickly, eluding him and safely reaching the house. Helen joins the cook Mrs. Oates in the kitchen and warms up by the fire. At 14:37 we segue into “Shutter Mystery” atop ominous horns when they are frightened by a loud banging wood shutter. As they walk to investigate Webb sow tension as they discover a window has been opened and its shutter is banging in the wind. They close it, Mrs. Oates swears she shut the window, and leaves to retrieve a hammer to fix the shutter. Tension again builds as we hear a thud and Mrs. Oates groan. Helen runs to her and it appears she tripped and fell over the dog. Mrs. Oates scolds the dog and Helen’s Theme enters on strings comprensiva as they dry it off. We end with disquiet as Mrs. Oates goes to fix the shutter.

At 16:32 we segue into “Helen Observed” atop eerie woodwinds of unease as Helen leaves to attend to Mrs. Warren upstairs. A thunderstorm unsettles us as she reaches a large floor length mirror on the mid landing, stops, and fixes her hair, supported by her theme on warm strings. We see her trying to speak and at 17:20 the music slowly darkens and transforms into a misterioso as the camera moves away up the second-floor hallway. At 17:33 menacing stinger surges as the camera reveals the legs of a man standing in the shadows. A menacing Theremin joins as the camera again focuses on a man’s malevolent leering eye. The camera penetrates the eye’s pupil, reverses its angle, and we look from its perspective at Helen, with her mouth clearly blurred. The eye disappears when Mrs. Oates cries out to Helen to hurry up and attend to Mrs. Warren. Upstairs she meets the aggrieved nurse Barker who complains about the insufferably rude Mrs. Warren, who forces her to sit outside the bedroom. At 19:02 we segue into “Mrs. Warren” atop Helen’s carefree theme as she enters the bedroom, finds Mrs. Warren asleep, and tends to the fire. The music becomes playful as Helen tosses more fuel into the fire, which wakes Mrs. Warren. At 20:11 the music Mrs. Warren’s Theme joins on soft woodwinds tenero as she relates proudly that she shot the tiger whose pelt Helen tripped over. We see game trophies decorating her room as she asks why Helen was late in arriving. She calls to her and plaintive strings full of concern rise up as she warns Helen to leave tonight and never come back if you know what’s good for you. The music becomes tense as nurse Barker enters to give Mrs. Warren her medicine and is brusquely told to get out.

At 21:27 we segue into “Professor Warren and the Constable” as Blanche advises Albert in his study that the constable has arrived to see him. Forlorn stings, which bear an occult menace support, flowing into a descent motif as he exits to greet the constable. The mood brightens as they discuss his aquarium, but it is fleeting, the music again darkening as he informs him that there has been another murder. At 22:38 eerie, forlorn woodwinds rise up as the constable confides that they have traced the murderer to the vicinity of this mansion. Albert maintains a calm demeanor as the constable advises that the house be locked securely, and that he remains at home. Strings join with mounting concern as the constable expresses concern for Helen relating that each of the victims had some type of affliction. Albert cuts him off and assures him that he will ensure Helen’s protection. At 23:21 we flow seamlessly into “Blanche and Steven” atop startling strings as Steven, Albert’s stepbrother surprises Blanche. He kisses her and distracts her from her work, much to her discomfort. Albert catches them kissing and Steven joins him and the constable as a flustered Blanche returns to her typing. After the constable is told by Steven that he has not left the house today, he departs with Mr. Oates entering as Albert opens the door. After the constable departs Albert advises Helen to stay in the house for her safety and to come to him for any concerns. He then asks her to attend to his step-mother.

We segue into “Mrs. Warren’s Warning” when she again informs Helen that she is concerned about her safety. At 28:21 portentous strings of concern join with woodwinds to sow menace when she orders Helen to sleep in her bedroom tonight, adding “You are not safe here”. We close on a plaintive rendering of Helen’s Theme by strings tristi with harp adornment as she sits down with a book by the fire. At 29:35 a tension crescendo stirs to life on her theme as we see Mrs. Warren reach for a pistol on her nightstand. Its articulation transforms into anger buttressed by dire horns as Helen tries to stop her and they wrestle for control. Mrs. Warren’s Theme sounds as she prevails, yet it is a Pyrrhic victory as she passes out. Helen leaves to seek the nurse for help, but she is nowhere to be found. Steven finds her and Helen pulls him in to see his mother. He asks her for brandy, but the bottle is empty. He then orders her to get the ether, which she agrees to but with clear reservations. He uses it to wake her and she demands to know why he came back. She then blames Helen for the attack and asks for Dr. Parry as we see her pistol has been hidden. At 32:55 we segue into “Mother’s Revelation” as she shocks everyone with the revelation that there has been another murder. Forlorn strings of woe emote the Murderer’s Theme as she adds that; “Nobody told her. Nobody had to. I always know everything”.

At 33:09 we segue into “Steven’s Playful Tune” as we see him playing diegetically a playful little ditty singing for Blanche to come to him, lest he come to her. She is decidedly unsettled and comes to him crying. As he comforts her Albert arrives and shows Steven his mud-covered shoes. Steven admits he lied to the constable, and did indeed leave the house. Albert dismisses Blanche and begins chastising Steven for lying, and placing them all at risk. This unleashes Steven disdain as he relates how much both of them disappointed father, as neither were aggressive, gun toting, or hard drinking men. Albert has had enough, admits his dislike, and asks Steven to leave and not come back. Yet they become distracted and end the conversation when Helen intrudes. At 37:25 we segue into “Dr. Parry Arrives” as he is escorted to Mrs. Warren’s bedroom. She relates to him her, and her husband’s disappointment with both Albert and Steven. Then like a bolt from the blue music enters when she asks Dr. Parry at 39:30 to take Helen away from this house as she knows that he loves her. Her plaintive theme voices her palpable concern, begging him to take Helen with him tonight. His request for ether elicits strings of concern and plaintive woodwinds as Helen, and then the nurse cannot locate the ether. We close on woodwinds of uncertainty as Dr. Parry leaves to investigate the ether’s where abouts.

At 45:28 we segue into “Arthur Pleads With Helen”, which offers a supremely emotional score highlight. We see Arthur pleading with her to leave the house and come away with him to live in Boston, citing physician experts to help her, and that she would be welcomed and loved by his family. A warm, and loving romance for strings of the Love Theme supports his entreaty. Yet the theme darkens and assumes a contour of pain as he relates to Helen a painful memory – that a Mrs. Linstrom from her home town is visiting. He begins telling her a story at 45:55 of a young girl who comes home from school to find her house engulfed in fire. Tremolo strings usher in a crescendo of horror as her eyes reveal her reliving that day of being helpless as her mother and father burned to death. She gasps and falls into a chair. Arthur tells her that he retold the story because he cares, and wants to help her. The music aches with the pain of loss as he holds and comforts her. At 46:32 a fervent crescendo dramatico swells as he offers his love and assistance. He desperately trys to reach her and we crest powerfully at 47:27 as he shouts to please, please try to talk! Yet it is for naught as she collapses with futility, and the moment is lost as Steven arrives and intrudes.

At 47:37 we segue into “Dr. Parry and Steven” where Steven informs Helen that his mother is asking for her and she departs carried by plaintive strings. Dr. Parry informs Steven of his plan to take Helen away and seek a cure, only to be belittled by him as he questions his motives and competence. Webb supports with a reprise of the Love Theme by strings tristi, and woodwinds full of concern. At 48:28 a crescendo of anger rises when Dr. Parry responds to Steven’s insult, warning him that his punch to his jaw would most likely break his neck. Albert joins and Dr. Parry informs him of his intent to take Helen with him. A warm reprise of a hopeful Love Theme’s romance for strings supports his earnest desire to help Helen. Yet when Albert asks why Helen needs to leave tonight, an ominous chord sounds at 49:17, which supports Dr. Parry’s cryptic reply that Mrs. Warren feels Helen is in danger if she remains here. This darkness lingers, yet surrenders at 49:35 to a hopeful rendering of Helen’s Theme as Dr. Parry informs him that he intends to take care of her. Yet we darken with rage at 49:54 as Dr. Parry takes offence from yet another snide comment from Steven. Later, Arthur receives a phone call and has to leave right away to tend to a very sick Wilson boy. He gives Helen the phone number, tells her to pack while he is gone, and kisses her as he departs.

At 51:20 we segue into “Helen’s Dream”, a wondrous score highlight, atop a gently blossoming of the Love Theme borne by violins romantico with harp adornment as Helen is clearly moved by Arthur’s affection for her. At 51:43 we commence a dream sequence, which unfolds with an onscreen flowing wave distortion effect supported eerily by a Theremin. At 51:54 we see Helen in an evening gown kissing Arthur in the Warren mansion grand room, which is overflowing with flowers. They commence an elegant dance with her theme rendered sumptuously as a valzer romantico. At 52:40 we shift to Helen wearing a wedding gown, descending the flower covered grand staircase with Arthur. Webb supports by interpolating an ethereal rendering of the traditional “Bridal Chorus” from the opera “Lahengrin” (1850) by Richard Wagner. At 52:56 we flow into the actual wedding ceremony atop the tender romanticism of her theme. Yet at 53:18 when the minister states her vow and says to signify agreement by saying “I do”, we shift into an other-worldly nebulousness atop impressionist violins and celeste. Helen struggles and is distraught as we hear the minister repeating “Say I do” as the hushed crowd looks on. The eerie onscreen, wave like distortion returns to support Helen returning to reality, her clear frustration erupting on a crescendo of distress. The music dissipates as Albert asks Helen if she does not feel well. She is clearly distraught and he wishes her well with her departure later tonight.

At we segue into “Blanche Fights With Steven” where we see him enter her bedroom uninvited. Blanche is angered by Stevens flippant comments and self-absorbed arrogance, and demands that he leave, showing him the door. As he departs he says she will regret this. Music enters afterwards at 56:29 with distraught descending strings and woodwinds of distress as she goes to Helen’s room to ask a favor – that she be allowed to leave with her tonight. The music lightens after she enters and we warm on Helen’s Theme. Blanche departs, saying she needs to retrieve her suitcase from the basement. Helen’s Theme blossoms in anticipatory happiness as she reads Arthur’s parting note. At 58:33 we segue into “Blanche Goes to the Basement” where we see her light a candle in the kitchen. Forlorn woodwinds rise up and are joined by eerie portentous tremolo strings as Blanche descends into the basement with the candle holder. Webb weaves a ghostly soundscape of terror set against thunder rumbles as Blanche heads deeper into the basement. She sees her suitcase and at 59:46 we commence a crescendo of terror triggered by a wind gust as the camera slowly pans right. It dissipates at 1:00:15 when she recognizes that Albert is also there. As she retrieves her suitcase the camera shifts to the leering eye supported by the terror of the Theremin borne Murder Theme. We descend into the eye, reverse and look outwards at a terrified Blanche. The orchestra erupts in violence at 1:00:38 as we see him rush and strangle her, the dire music dissipating as her hands go limp and fall.

Upstairs nurse Barker has had enough of Mrs. Warren’s insufferable rude behavior and quits. Helen overhears and runs past the nurse into the bedroom. At 1:02:07 we segue into “Mrs. Warren’s Revelation” as she reveals to Helen that a girl was murdered here a long time ago. Webb supports with a string borne testament of terror joined by woodwinds of woe as she tells the dark tale. She calls Helen to her bedside and tells her to leave with nurse Barker immediately, but if she cannot, then she must hide under the bed. Helen is incredulous and Mrs. Warren asks “Why won’t anyone listen to her” as thunder rumbles. In “Nurse Barker Departs” Albert pays her salary and agrees to hitch up a carriage for her, yet when Steven walks in wet from a walk, Albert asks that he attend to her since he was already wet. After they depart, Albert asks Helen to inform Blanche that he wants to see her in the den. She is not in her room, and so Helen goes to the kitchen to retrieve a candle, intending to go to the basement. At 1:05:51 we segue into “Helen’s Grim Discovery” atop forlorn woodwinds joined by foreboding tremolo violins as Helen lights a candle and descends downstairs to the basement. Once again as thunder crashes, Webb weaves a tapestry of rising terror as she looks for Blanche. She finds Blanche on the floor and horns of doom sound at 1:06:59 as she discovers she is dead. At 1:07:06 a wind gust triggers a crescendo of terror as Helen slowly turns her head to see Steven walk in. The tension subsides as he examines Blanche and asks if she had been here long, to which she shakes her head no. He informs her that he and the nurse saw the basement exterior door open and did she enter that way, and she again nods no. An eerie violin tremolo rises as he tells Helen to forget what she has seen, and that he will handle this. She takes the candle as an eerie celeste chime joins the wind as he asks her to come with him. He turns back and asks “You don’t think I did it?”, to which Helen does not answer.

They begin walking carried by eerie tremolo strings and at 1:08:53 we segue into “Helen Locks Steven Up” atop a low register reverberating piano strike as Helen purposely knocks the candle over and extinguishes its flame, plunging them into darkness. Steven lights a match to find it, locates it in the wine cellar and enters. Helen slams the door shut, locks it and fleas upstairs to desperate flight music of terror as Steven yells and pounds on the door. We crest at 1:09:26 as Helen reaches the kitchen and tries desperately to wake Mrs. Oates up from her brandy induced stupor. She fails and in a rising panic flees on a crescendo of terror searching room to room, unable to find Albert, her panic growing by the second. A diminuendo at 1:10:06 calms the panic storm as she pulls out the phone number Arthur wrote down supported by her plaintive theme. Strings of flight carry her run to the phone, yet it is for naught for try as she might she cannot utter a word to the operator. A new diminuendo of tension begins as Albert arrives and she writes that Blanche was murdered by Steven and that he is locked in the basement. She starts to faint and Albert decides to take her up to his mother’s room and then call the constable.

On the stairs Albert says he is glad she could not complete the phone call, which causes her to freeze in horror. At 1:11:38 as we flow into “The Murderer Revealed” a score highlight as tremolo violins and the wailing Theremin join in unholy communion. He relates that earlier as she looked in this mirror, he saw no mouth, just like now. The Theremin wails, and he commands her to look in the mirror as he with menace declares that there is no room in the world for imperfection. As he dons his black gloves, he thanks her for locking up Steven, the only person who could have saved her. She flees upwards but he catches her and gives thanks for the quiet, and that everyone is out of the way. Woodwinds of distress and violins of doom support her backwards steps up the stairs as he follows with menacing dark purpose. Muted horns of doom sound and portend her demise as he stares with the cold eyes of a killer. At 1:13:18 a horrific slow building crescendo of terror commences as Albert relates how Steven is weak, and how he wished his father had lived to see him become strong by disposing of the weak and imperfect of the world. Then with frightening eyes of menace he closes saying his father would have been proud of what his is about to do.

At 1:13:36 we segue into “Helen’s Desperate Run” atop frantic strings of flight as Helen bolts and flees to his mother’s room. Albert hesitates outside as Helen tries to rouse Mrs. Warren with a note saying “Where is the gun!” She does not wake and she desperately searches for the gun. Someone knocks on the front door and Albert descends to inquire. It is the constable, who informs him that Dr. Parry cannot return tonight to pick up Helen as the Wilson boy is too ill. Albert says that he will inform her and the constable departs. Upstairs Helen in a rising panic opens a window to try to alert the constable that she needs help, but her banging is masked by the banging wood gate and thunder and the constable starts to depart. She throws a large lamp shatters a window in a last bid attempt to alert him supported by a string ascent of desperation, but the sound of shattered glass is masked by a thunder clap. As he rides off strings desperation turn to terror. An interlude by woodwinds of woe with muted horns of doom at 1:16:22 supports Albert hanging up the phone.

At 1:16:33 we segue into “Aborted Rescue” carried by strings sinistre and horns of doom as he dons his gloves and heads upstairs driven by dark purpose. Yet his progress is again stymied as he hears a man shouting Steven and is forced to once more descend downstairs to inquire. Descending strings and diminution in terror carry his descent. At 1:17:00 Helen exits the spare bedroom and goes to the head of the stairs, where she sees no Albert. Repeating blares by horns of dread and frightening tremolo violins carry her progress, joined by a descent motif for strings as Albert descends into the basement. A plaintive Helen’s Theme joins at 1:17 43 as she moves to the top of the back stairs, with a string descent motif carrying her down its spiral staircase. She hears Steven crying out and descends to the basement as Albert lurks, hidden in the shadows. At 1:18:48 horns minacciose growl joined by the eerie Theremin as she sees Albert’s foot protruding from the shadow, only to be pulled back.

At 1:19:02 we segue into “Albert’s Death” a score highlight atop frantic strings of flight as Helen bolts up the stairs fleeing for her life with Albert in hot pursuit. At 1:19:14 a tremolo violin sustain of tension surges as she stops cold in her tracks when she sees Mrs. Warren standing at the head of the stairs with her pistol. Albert arrives, looks up and Mrs. Warren empties her gun into him, each shot supported by synchronous orchestral surges of violence, as she shouts “Murderer!” Helen screams, cowers, and strings of expiration support Albert’s collapse as he looks up to his mother. She gives a damning account of the innocent people he murdered supported by strings affanato, and at 1:22:02 horns of death support his passing as she says “I hate you.” A descent motif supports Helen retrieving Steve at Mrs. Warren’s request. As she looks at the body of her dead son aching strings lamentoso reveals her anguish for what Albert did, and what no mother should have to do. A solo violin triste supports Steven’s arrival and is joined in aching sadness by kindred strings as his mother says; “Now it’s been done, ten years too late”. She collapses on the stairs and an aching, solo violin of remorse supports her apology to Steven, admitting she had thought it was him who was the murderer.

At 1:21:25 we segue into “Helen’s Rebirth” atop urgent strings full of sadness, which support Steven’s order to Helen to quickly get Dr. Parry as his mother clutches her chest in pain. A sad refrain of her theme supports Helen cranking the phone to reach the operator. A slow ascent of her theme on strings supports her slowly saying; “1, 8, 9, Dr. Parry come. It’s I, Helen”. as she weeps tears of joy from the recognition that she has regained her voice. We close with a stirring ascent of her string borne theme, which blossoms with hope for a bright and happy future. The camera slowly pulls away to end the film, with her theme culminating in a grand flourish as “The End” displays. At 1:23:18 we segue into “Cast of Characters” where the cast members are displayed supported by a romantic restatement of Helen’s Theme, which ends in a flourish.

A catastrophic house fire in 1961 destroyed Roy Webb’s musical library of manuscripts and films scores. The loss was tragic as none of his film score canon survives outside of the 266 films he scored. There are no commercial releases of his film scores available, which for me is a problem that must be rectified. Webb composed four primary themes to support his soundscape, with ingenious conception of the Murder Theme. He chose to utilize one shared leitmotif for both killer and victim. His music would be distorted using an eerie high register string tremolo joined with a wailing, not of the world Theremin. This frightening, unholy communion joined synergistically with the camera descending into the pupil of a large leering eye, reversing its angle to view the victim from the killer’s perspective, using a blurred out of focus camera shot to highlight the victim’s physical imperfection. Helen’s Theme offers one of the most lyrical and romantic in Webb’s cannon, which with the Love Theme juxtapose the sinister, lurking menace of murder, which permeates the film. However, I would be remiss if I did not praise Webb for his non-thematic compositional genius, which when all is said and done, offers a testament to his mastery of his craft. Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography masterfully presented the film’s setting; its storm swept lands buffeted by howling winds, brilliant lightning flashes, deafening thunderclaps, the mansion’s foreboding, darkly lite hallways, banging shutters and gates, and the lurking menace of the basement, which can only be illuminated by a hand carried candle holder. However, in my judgment and final analysis, it is Webb’s music which sows tension, fear, and anxiety, masterfully bringing home the lurking menace, terror, and horror of the film’s narrative without the cliché and usual gimmickry too often employed in the genre. This score offers a thoughtful, well-conceived and executed score that in every way enhanced and elevated its film. I consider it one of the finest in Webb’s canon, a masterpiece of the genre, and a Golden Age classic. May I live to see the day of its re-recording.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to twenty-one minutes of music extracted from the film; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VqMJaH-MQ64

Track Listing:


Unreleased (1946)

Music composed and conducted by Roy Webb. Orchestrations by Gil Grau. Score produced by Constantin Bakaleinikoff.

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