Haworth, Catherine (2005) Gender and subversion in Roy Webb's score for 'The Spiral Staircase'. In: RMA Research Students' Conference, March 2005, University of Durham. (Unpublished)

This paper will examine the role of music and sound in the 1946 cross-generic thriller The Spiral Staircase. Directed by Robert Siodmak and scored by Roy Webb, The Spiral Staircase combines the narrative devices of a conventional horror film with characteristics of 1940s film noir. These include an emphasis on popularised Freudian psychology; Expressionistic shot composition and use of lighting; and, most significantly, a subversion of Hollywood’s traditional gender roles. Film noir’s complex set of gender relationships has been extensively theorised, and is generally regarded as articulating the anxieties of post-World War II American society. The Spiral Staircase adopts noir’s motifs of powerful women and emasculated men, and revolves around the question of what it actually means to ‘be a man’.

Webb’s non-diegetic music for 'The Spiral Staircase' echoes this generic and stylistic mix. It functions as a ‘classical’ film score in its placement, construction, and use of traditional signifiers of danger and suspense, but also works to subvert the conventions of Hollywood by engaging with and highlighting the gender issues outlined above. Webb uses unusual orchestration, prominently featuring a Theremin, to emphasise the interplay of gender roles in the narrative, and uses leitmotif to create explicit musical connections between killer, victim and innocent suspect. Through an examination of these elements of Webb’s score, this paper will argue that the soundtrack encourages a reading of the film that subverts the patriarchal order of the Hollywood studio system and post-War society.

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