Great Staircase Scenes

Step by Step: The Staircase as Metaphor Across Film Genres
Brit Katz – StairMaster
Chris Spear – Film Editor
Al Parker – Technical Advisor

You’ve just seen an iconic clip from that epic Gone With The Wind, produced in 1939 and one of the best known films in the American film canon. However, I’m asking you not to focus upon Rhett and Scarlett, but upon that glorious red staircase.

It is a staircase to our imagination. As Rhett carries Scarlett up, up, up into the dark recesses, the stairs are his power, his passion for her, his jealousy over Scarlett’s fixation upon Ashley Wilkes, their love-hate struggles, and his Alpha-male attempt to dominate her.

Dr. Sigmund Freud argued that walking up and down stairs can be interpreted as a representation of the sexual act. If so, then that staircase is one rich, long, big cinematic coupling. However, each moviegoer’s mind plays out what happens in the dark of the stair to her or his own imaginative satisfaction.

For scholars of film, the analysis of set pieces like staircases is a meaningful endeavor. The director and the screenwriters have precious few minutes to construct a meaningful plot for the audience. They can’t waste a single frame of opportunity to convey their messages. Thus, staircases have been utilized so many times to strengthen a film’s message to the viewer. Rather than focus the eye on the brilliant acting, one should focus cognitive thought upon the staircases, their railings, and their design.

In every instance they are central to the critical success of each movie; and they cross genres that today include the epic, the drama, the melodrama, film noir, the thriller, and horror.

Moreover, according to writer Donald Spoto, the staircase is the symbol of the acquisition of learning and of the ascent to knowledge and transfiguration. If it rises skyward — as it so powerfully does for Rhett and Scarlett — the knowledge is that of a divine world. If it leads downward, then it is to the depths of the unconscious.

We can’t just see them as carpet and steps. They exist to generate a metaphorical intellectual response. Our staircases have an “imaginary identity,” according to Chris Baldrick – they look like one thing but they possess another expression, too.

Staircases offer ready-made opportunities for staging great confrontations, creating a sense of menace or conveying the urgent sense of danger at the top or bottom of the stair. They offer a spatial relationship for characters, sometimes communicating a dominant figure at the top of the banister and a dominated individual at the bottom step; sometimes the distance between actors on the staircases punctuates the tension between them, too.

Further, the staircase has been utilized for metaphorical impact throughout movie-making history. In 1925, Sergei Eisenstein directed The Battleship Potemkin. The famous Odessa Staircase sequence has been mimicked many times since; the long scene inspired similar shots in The Godfather (1972) and The Untouchables (1987).[1]

As you look at this six-minute clip, you notice the dominance of these cold, unyielding, oppressive steps. The film is metaphorical respect for revolution against a repressive czarist regime. The people of Odessa have supplied food to wartime sailors in defiance of the government. The czar’s Cossacks appear to violently oppress the people. Look for images of a disabled person cast aside as a symbol of vulnerability; a boy is shot and trampled as a sign of devalued life; a mother is killed as she protects her child, interpreted as the end of innocence. This is a staircase descending into chaos, a hell the people cannot escape unless they revolt. The director will deliberately not show the faces of the soldiers but only the face of that endless staircase of brutality with its absence of civil order.

Film noir, or literally ‘dark film,’ has elements of human evil. And staircases are ideal for expressing the concepts. In the 1947 classic Kiss of Death, actor Richard Widmark earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Tommy Udo. But we need stairs to realize what a sociopath he is, the embodiment of evil and the messenger of death.

Here, he seeks the location of an informant that he’s been sent to kill. The informant’s home is only occupied by an invalid woman well-performed by veteran character actress Mildred Dunnock. We will see what a vicious, unfeeling murderer he is; this steep, dim, stark staircase will prove it.

And, in 1947, movie fans weren’t accustomed to seeing this. This is a staircase to death.

While I am not a fan of contemporary horror films, let’s pay tribute to a master, Alfred Hitchcock. In 1960, he directed Psycho, the forerunner to every slasher film created since. The murder of Detective Arbogast is Hitchcock’s most brutal scene on a staircase. The staircase offers mystery; it is a gnawing sense of dread, of something sinister. It hides secrets. Arbogast will pay a price to these stairs for penetrating the secrets. On this dark, decaying, silent set of steps we find our worst nightmare as Arbogast falls down the stairs, followed by Mrs. Bates, concluding with his violent, jarring demise.

Hitchcock won awards for crafting complex thrillers, too. With Vertigo in 1958, he painted his masterpiece. Starring James Stewart as a neurotic ex-police officer who is afraid of heights and Kim Novak as a duplicitous love object, the famous staircase in the bell tower is at the center of the characters’ obsessions. This vertigo is metaphor for falling, but falling hopelessly in love with someone totally wrong for you. The staircase is the dizzying loss of control, the spiraling sense of anxiety as they near the truths that await at the top of the stairs. James Stewart is a man who suffered a nervous breakdown early in the film; and you recognize on the stairs that he remains literally and metaphorically “on the edge” of insanity, provoked by his obsession with Novak’s character.

In this long scene, he solves the riddle of a murder in which Novak’s character was a participant. She looks exactly like a woman she was hired to mimic, then to lead Stewart’s character to the top of the tower where he would see the woman thrown from the tower to her death. As we are reminded at the close of this scene, gravity is a metaphor for death and it can be denied only so long. If the intensity on the stairs reeks of sexual obsession, sin, and angst to you, then Hitchcock and his actors succeeded.

Death is a common dramatic theme played out across stairs. But, in the 1997 epic Titanic, the outcomes are more uplifting. The grand staircase in the first class atrium of the ship is featured throughout the Oscar-winning film. It represents the ship’s power, its wealth, its arrogance, and the irony of its inevitable demise. Some viewers may misinterpret the movie’s final romantic sequence: in this clip, the 100-year old Rose has just dropped the heart-shaped diamond into the ocean and died in her sleep. Her mission accomplished, she returns to the long-ago Titanic and to Jack.

As she enters the atrium once more, she encounters a stairway to heaven. In this angular, elegant, surreal environ, she meets the deceased ship architect, then her Jack. Look closely and you see that Jack and Rose are surrounded only by the kind spirits of those who died on board.

No survivor of the tragedy greets them. These are ghosts of a lost voyage, now reunited in the afterlife. It’s a perfect pathway to heaven, replete with the restored clock, resplendent refinery, and the promise of lost love now recovered for eternity. It’s a metaphysical moment, one with romance and youthful beauty. Even dead Captain Smith is smiling.

A staircase in melodrama is well presented in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. In an award-winning piece of acting, Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, a once-great star of silent films who can’t accept the inexorable intrusion of aging and the loss of her fans and appeal. She takes in a gigolo, grows jealous, then kills him. But, the stress of her decadent life induces insanity. In this all-too-famous scene, her madness clouds her realities as she doesn’t comprehend that she’s about to be arrested. Her loyal henchman Max pretends that she’s shooting a glamorous movie scene.

Look for the grand staircase. It’s as twisted as her life is. It was once beautiful and new; but, like Norma, it now represents her gradual decline and disrepair. It’s a staircase of irony – she thinks she’s surrounded by movie extras or fans, but she faces a cadre of paparazzi and police and newshounds. As she descends into total madness, both she and the staircase fade to black, surrendering to life.

My favorite use of staircases is in the 1949 adaptation of The Heiress, featuring Olivia de Havilland in an Oscar-winning turn as Catherine Sloper. It’s one of the finest dramatic portrayals by a female actress on film. Renowned director William Wyler knows how to set up a character and scene with staircases. We’ll see three clips that allow de Havilland to evolve her character.

In the first sequence, we’ll see a shy, awkward, homely girl preparing for a ball with her protective aunt. The scene will conclude with her descent down the massive, rich, three-story staircase that IS metaphor for her life. It’s a quick descent, necessary to convey her desire for approval, her naïveté, and her innocence, but if you look carefully, you’ll see the confining narrow stairs and upright slats that are the bars of her personal prison. But she’s not yet aware of how truly oppressed she is by her surroundings.

[At 5:20]

Her father, played by Sir Ralph Richardson, displays contempt for his plain and unexceptional daughter. So she tries to escape when a fortune-hunting Morris Townsend, played by Montgomery Clift, enters her life. He only wants her money, but she’s convinced herself that he loves her. She promises to elope with him one evening after midnight. However, when Morris learns that her father will disinherit Catherine if she marries him, Morris deserts her.

In this seminal scene, we will see her dawning recognition that he isn’t coming….and she miserably climbs the dark stairs while carrying the baggage. We can interpret the heavy suitcase as “mental baggage,” as the aggregate of her lifetime of neurotic suffering. We see her take a hesitant step and stumble forward as she returns to the stairs, oppressed by a tyrant of a father and absent a longed-for lover. The stairs are unforgiving, unwelcoming, unwanted, and unlit signs of lost opportunity, lost love, and unhappiness. By the end, we aren’t yet certain that ascending the stairs brings her new awareness or thought, but we see the stairs do reflect her humiliation.

[At 1:10:01]

In the final third of the film the staircase now symbolizes the power shift between Catherine and her father, then between Catherine and her ill-fated suitor, Morris Townsend. She has evolved into an assertive, angry, resentful heiress, fully aware of her own contempt for the men who rejected her love and attentions. By the time of this final clip, she has already descended the stairs to confront her father, forever severing herself from him.

Learning that she is no longer disinherited from her vast wealth, Morris Townsend attempts to reconnect with Catherine, too, but she is now as firm and immovable as her staircase. She tricks him into thinking that she still wishes to elope and he returns at the same middle-of-the night moment he had pledged to elope with her years earlier. But this time, she rejects him. She faces the stairs one final time. With heightened self-awareness and revenge fulfilled, she carries her own illumination up the staircase, lighting her own path. We see her face with a new glow – the staircase to her life may be bittersweet, but she is in control of it.

[At 1:34:00]

In 1964, Carl Jung argued that there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding. He suggested that we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully understand. Our staircases can impart unique feelings if we allow our intellectual curiosity to trigger them. A staircase is transformed from a familiar object into intellectual uncertainty, then transformed again into a feeling, emotion, or conclusion of our own minds’ making.

I hope that you will always view your staircases with new eyes.

Lights, camera, action…The End!