How Hitchcock's Use of Stairs Was Different Than Any Other Director

'Shadow of a Doubt'Credit: Universal Pictures
Every location is an opportunity to create something no one has ever seen before. 

There's just something about Alfred Hitchcock. So few directors have his swagger, his mystique. He was a larger-than-life personality whose career was red hot for almost three decades, but it burnt so bright it was an absolute travesty the way it faded in his final years. One of the many things I admire about Hitchcock is how he could take an ordinary object and turn it into the extraordinary. For a director famous for putting average people in above-average scenarios, maybe this shouldn't be surprising. But it still amazes me today. 

One of the things he shot differently than almost anyone else is stairs. When you think about it, stairs became an incredible and integral part of the stories he told. They transported you into danger, offered escape, capitalized on phobias, and signified impending doom. 

Watch this stair supercut from Max Tohline, and let's talk after. 

How Hitchcock's Use of Stairs Was Different Than Any Other Director

First off, let's talk about how the stair shots in that video are from 39 different Hitchcock movies.

If you didn't think stairs were thematic and emblematic of this auteur's work, I think you stand corrected. One of the things the video silently points out is that the first shot of Hitchcock's first film, The Pleasure Garden (1925), is of a line of women streaming down a spiral staircase.

Guess what? The last shot of Hitchcock's last film, Family Plot (1976), features a character sitting down on a staircase, looking into the camera, and winking.

That's pretty cool! 

So what set Hitchcock apart from other people depicting staircases? 

As the video description says, "Hitchcock made the staircase a recurring motif in his complex grammar of suspense—a device by which potential energy could be, metaphorically and literally, loaded into narrative, a zone of unsteady or vertiginous passage from one space to another, always on the verge of becoming a site of violence." 

I think his focus on how they affected character and mood is key here. No matter the story, Hitchcock always considered how staircases transporting the character would also transport the story. Were we moving somewhere forbidden? Somewhere sensual? Was going up the stairs terrifying? Arousing? Enticing? 

In a movie like Psycho, the truth lies at the top of the stairs. Who's been killing tenants of the Bates Motel?  But when a character heads up the stairs, he's killed and falls back down. He cannot handle what he's seen.

In Vertigo, stairs are made famous for someone who is afraid of heights. Hitchcock even invented the dolly zoom for it, or the "Vertigo effect," which accentuates what it's like to climb the stairs and get a bit lost. 

There are over 50 years between Hitchcock's first and final film, and stairs in almost every title between. You see people hiding up them in Shadow of a Doubt. They lead to both sex and serial killers in Frenzy. And who can forget Shadow of a Doubt, with Uncle trying to kill Charlie by sawing through a step? Or the whole movie of The 39 Steps!  

The thing to take away as filmmakers is how Hitchcock frames these simple devices in houses and uses them in combination with camera angles and movements to be evocative of tone and story. The stairs are gateways to everything he wants to say and more.

So how can you bend these objects this way? What can you transform? I mean, stairs aside—in Notorious, Hitchcock makes a glass of milk feel dangerous. 

Take these lessons and apply them. Show us what you've got.      

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