Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Stairs (yes, stairs!) in Movies

Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, was also the master of memorable staircase sequences. James Stewart’s inability to climb the stairs of a Spanish mission proved integral to the plot of Vertigo (1958). Cary Grant carried a glowing glass of milk up the stairs in Suspicion (1941), then carried an ailing Ingrid Bergman down the stairs in the tense climax to Notorious (1946). Martin Balsam encountered a knife-wielding killer at the top of the stairs in the Bates house in Psycho (1960). Ironically, Hitchcock’s film version of The 39 Steps (1935) omitted the elaborate stairs to the beach described in John Buchan’s spy novel.

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.
While the Odessa Steps may be more famous, the most visually stunning staircase was the moving one that transported souls from the Earthly world to the celestial one in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger's classic 1946 fantasy A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven).

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 Edmond 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)
Suspicion (1941)
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
The Spiral Staircase (1946)
Notorious (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)
Vertigo (1958)
Psycho (1960)
Barefoot in the Park (1967)
Staircase (1969)
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973 TVM)
The Spiral Staircase (1975)
Rocky (1976)
High Anxiety (1977)
Deadly Friend (1986)
The Untouchables (1987)
A Better Tomorrow II (1988)
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Hard-Boiled (1992)
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.


  1. Excellent list that got me thinking. I came up with a couple of favourites:

    Cagney as Cohan dancing down the White House steps.

    The mice Jaq and Gus's valiant struggle to get the key up the stairs to release the trapped "Cinderella".

  2. Looks like it's been a while since you've watched "The Incredible Shrinking Man." It isn't the stairs Grant Williams climbs with that grapple hook, but rather a worktable in the basement that has a block of moldy cheese on top. I actually think he'd have been wiser to go for the stairs instead.

  3. I think "Unbreakable" may fit on the list. Samuel Jackson had some issues with a stairway.

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  5. How could you forget Gone With The Wind...? There so many importants scenes in the movie:

    Scarlett walking up the stairs at the barbeque at Twelve Oaks, on this walk, she sees Rhett Butler for the first time, standing at the bottom of the steps;

    Prissy confesses that she doesn’t know nothing about birthing no babies, and Scarlett realizes that she’ll have to deliver Melanie's baby;

    Scarlett stares up at the remains of Twelve Oaks, after it’s been burned by the Yankees. All that’s left is the staircase;

    Rhett carrying Scarlett up the stairs in a passionate rage;

    Scarlett falling down the stairs a few weeks later, miscarrying the child that had been conceived on that night;

    The final scene, where Scarlett sits on the steps and decides to return to Tara.

  6. Really unique take on what has been an important aspect of so many movies! I think that train station staircase scene in The Untouchables is one of the best ever. Wonderful choreography and suspense! One I love that I don't think you mentioned is the end of "The Heiress." Watching Olivia de Havilland climbing the stairs while listening to Montgomery Clift pound on the door is really a marvelous piece of film. Just watching her face as she lives out her decision is a big part of it. Great idea, Rick!

  7. When I was very very young, I watched a movie that had a stair sceene that haunted me in nightmares for a long time.
    It made such an impression that I do not dare to use unstable stairs.
    The sceene was (from a black and white movie) a child runnig up stairs and the stairs behind him would fall apart as he would step up. I remember nothing else from it. It seems to me it was like tower stairs.

    Do you know which movie would it be? I would really like to watch it now.