Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Top 10 Staircases in Cinema

Whether for the purposes of humour, suspense, tragedy or action, some of cinema’s most memorable scenes have taken place on a staircase. As a potentially fatal area in the comfort of a domestic space, filmmakers have long understood and exploited the dramatic potential of the stares, often hovering characters nearby to build tension, before releasing it with a well-timed dramatic climax. Here are ten of the best examples.

10. The Wolf of Wall Street
A relatively modest staircase becomes a formidable obstacle in the eyes of a drugged-up Leonardo diCaprio. Scorsese playfully distorts reality by revealing there to be six steps in an establishing shot, but then about three times that amount from DiCaprio’s distorted point of view. 

9. The Fallen Idol
Children sneaking out of bed to observe the behaviour of their elders from the top of the stairs is a familiar trope in films. In The Fallen Idol, the young protagonist is seen frequently peering down the staircase, and sees thing that dismantle his innocent hero worship of the house’ butler.  

8. The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers
Many an exciting action sequence has taken place on the precarious setting of the stairs – see The Bourne Identity and Casino Royal for other great examples. But Legolas’ improvisational skateboard down one at the Battle of Helm’s Deep wins for overcoming the inherent disadvantages of stares and killing about six orcs in the process.

7. A Matter of Life and Death
For sheer size the stairway to heaven from A Matter of Life and Death takes some beating. Powell and Pressburger didn’t need digital technology to depict an elevator that runs all the way to heaven, by building a huge set that gives the impression of going on forever.

6. The Floorwalker 
Mishaps on staircases need not always lead to tragic consequences – they can be comic too. Falling down the stairs is a timeless slapstick gag, but possibly the funniest stair-based gags come from Charlie Chaplin's Floorwalker. An elevator lurks ominously in the background in scenes set in the shop, which the legendary clown duly exploits the full comic potential of, by falling catastrophically up them and trying vainly to sprint down them.

5. Gone With The Wind
In a film full of melodrama, the staircase at the centre of the grand house in Gone With The Wind witnesses much incident. First there’s the erotically charged scene in Clarke Gable’s Rhett whisks Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara to make love, which set the template for lovers climbing the stairs to the bedroom. Then later, in a tragic reversal, a pregnant Scarlett falls down them and loses her child. An unflinching single shot and amplified sound make this scene particularly harrowing.

4. Sunset Boulevard
The staircase in the final scene of Sunset Boulevard means different things to different people – for Gloria Swanson it is the setting for a glamorous entry in her latest film, but for everyone else it is a delusional woman’s descent into the arm of the law. Although we’re made fully aware of the delusion, Billy Wilder still shoots the scene in a way that frames the policeman as stricken bystanders with all eyes on the fallen star.

3. Psycho
Out of context, the detective’s unrealistic backwards fall down a staircase in Psycho would look ridiculous, but accompanied by those screeching strings, creepy black and white and tracking medium shot the scene instead comes off as eerily surreal. Rather than tumble head over heels, he falls upright, flailing his hands in a futile attempt to clutch at something while the life escapes from his eyes. From the climactic scene in Notorious to the innovatively disorientating use of the dolly zoom in Vertigo, staircases are a recurring motif in Hitchcock’s films, but this is perhaps the most memorable.

2. The Shining
Staircases leading into the unknown, particularly those that lead downwards into basements, are a common prop in horror films, and Jack Nicholson’s agonisingly slow ascent in The Shining is perhaps the most tense of all. Much of the scene actually takes place on the downstairs floor, but once Shelly Duval starts backing up the stair and gaining the higher ground, she begins to grow bolder before finally striking him with the baseball bat. Before that, though, the way she keeps him only just at bay by waving the bat in front of him has a dreadful nightmarish quality.  

1. Battleship Potemkin
It’s not an overstatement to say that the ‘Odessa steps’ sequence in this masterpiece revolutionised the way films are put together. This scene has become so famous in fact, that a parody of it in the opening of The Untouchables could easily have made this list in its own right. In it, Sergei Eisenstein put into practice his theories of montage, by exploring the potential of film editing to prompt greater emotional responses from the viewer. We wince as the pram totters towards the edge of the staircase, and recoil as a child is repeatedly trampled on, in ways that the more basic editing techniques used in films prior to Battleship Potemkin were unable to elicit. 


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