Despite Hitchcock’s impressive use of stairs, none of his sequences has achieved the fame of Sergei Einsenstein’s “Odessa Steps” scene in the classic Russian silent film Potemkin (1925). Considered by many critics as one of the famous sequences ever put on film, it starts with Czarist soldiers marching down a long flight of steps and firing on fleeing citizens. In the midst of this massive carnage, a mother is killed and the baby carriage containing her child tumbles down the many steps. Brian De Palma paid homage to the Odessa Steps sequence in the exciting train station shootout in The Untouchables (1987)—a scene that was spoofed seven years later in Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult.
|The baby carriage rolling down the stairs in Eisenstein's classic.|
|Powell and Pressberger's stairway to heaven.|
Boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) trained for his heavyweight championship bout in Rocky (1976) by running up and down the steep stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In a greater athletic endeavor, the tiny hero of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) tried to climb the stairs out of his basement using a thread and a straight pin as a rope and grappling hook.
Several musical numbers have taken place on stairs, though few can compare to the classic routine performed by Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in The Little Colonel (1935).
On the darker side, stairs have also been used for homicidal purposes. In Kiss of Death (1947), Richard Widmark’s psychotic killer gleefully pushed a wheelchair-bound woman down a flight of stairs. Nasty cop Edmund O’Brien murdered a blind man in a similar manner in Shield for Murder (1954). Neither of those cold-blooded killers can compare with Gene Tierney’s obsessive wife portrayal in Leave Her to Heaven (1946). Unwilling to share husband Cornel Wilde with anyone, she hurled herself down the stairs upon learning of her pregnancy. People have fallen or been pushed down staircases in many other films such as Before Dawn (1931), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), and Deadly Friend (1986). A homicidal psychopath met his fate when Ethel Barrymore, Dorothy McGuire, and George Brent converged on the title structure in the climax of The Spiral Staircase (1946). Chow Yun Fat proved adept at sliding down stairs with both revolvers blazing in both A Better Tomorrow II (1988) and Hard-Boiled (1992). Al Pacino used an escalator for his shootout in Carlito’s Way (1993).
Finally, in the fact-based 1998 TV-movie The Staircase, William Petersen played a carpenter who built a one-of-a-kind church staircase for nun Barbara Hershey. The following is a list of films in which stairs play an important part:
Potemkin (aka Battleship Potemkin) (1925)
Before Dawn (1931)
The Little Colonel (1935)
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939)
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
The Spiral Staircase (1946)
A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) (1946)
Kiss of Death (1947)
Shield for Murder (1954)
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Barefoot in the Park (1967)
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973 TVM)
The Spiral Staircase (1975)
High Anxiety (1977)
Deadly Friend (1986)
The Untouchables (1987)
A Better Tomorrow II (1988)
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Carlito’s Way (1993)
Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994)
The Staircase (1998 TVM)
Reprinted with the authors' permission from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series.