Staircases are having a moment.
Two of the buzziest movies now in theaters boast attention-getting stairway scenes, in both cases on staircases so long they barely seem real. In “Joker,” it’s Joaquin Phoenix’s title character, doing a bonkers dance on stairs in the Bronx in a scene so iconic that the location is now a clogged tourist attraction. In “Parasite,” it’s a never-ending series of South Korean staircases that the film’s central characters descend during a torrential downpour.
The “Parasite” sequence comes during the movie’s climax as an impoverished family desperately races from the luxurious home of their wealthy employers down multiple flights of stairs to their subterranean home, which is being flooded with sewage. Staircases, like bridges, almost always function as a metaphor for a space that is in between two worlds — in this case, a world of privilege and a world of poverty — and the lengthy, sodden “Parasite” scene forces us to descend, along with the family, from a carefree world into a world without hope.
That’s not even the only staircase in “Parasite.” In the luxurious home, there’s also a secret passage that descends to another lair for the poor. It’s safe to say the drama, favored to win this year’s foreign film Oscar, is obsessed with stairs, as is director Bong Joon-ho, who has been quoted as saying, “I’m a lover of stairs” because of their metaphoric possibilities.
He’s not the only one. As our list of the best cinematic stairway scenes shows, the movies have been stair-crazy from the beginning:
1. “Battleship Potemkin” (1925)
Every staircase scene owes a debt to this silent masterpiece, the granddaddy of them all. Sergei Eisenstein is one of the Russian directors who invented the language of film, particularly in the area of editing. Many of those techniques are on view in the Odessa Steps scene, featuring Cossacks firing on unarmed civilians, including a woman who loses her grip on her pram and watches in horror as it careens down the steps. As in “Parasite,” it’s a scene in which the stairs emphasize class differences. Brian De Palma paid homage to “Potemkin” with his own out-of-control baby carriage flying down a staircase in the midst of a hail of bullets in “The Untouchables.” But Eisenstein’s work is the standard, an early example of what can happen when you edit together a series of images at a rapidly accelerating pace: suspense and horror.
2. “Psycho” (1960)
The effect that shows terrified Martin Balsam after an old woman pushes him down a rickety staircase in “Psycho” may not seem like anything special anymore but the scene still works. It’s one of two moments in the movie in which a big-name star suddenly disappears long before we expected him to. When Balsam, as an investigator trying to figure out what’s happening at the Bates Motel, climbs those stairs, it’s almost like he’s bridging the gap between reason and insanity. (The scene almost feels like an atonement for the 1947 “Kiss of Death,” in which a cackling Richard Widmark pushes an elderly woman in a wheelchair down some stairs.)
3. “Little Shop of Horrors” (1986)
A happy staircase scene, for once. The stairs themselves are a crumbling mess but they’re also where the simmering romance between Audrey (Ellen Greene) and Seymour (Rick Moranis) finally becomes physical. In the song, “Suddenly, Seymour,” as the notes build to a peak, Seymour echoes them, bounding up a staircase that leads to love.
4. “The Exorcist” (1973)
There are two famous staircases in this horror classic, both of which separate good and evil. There’s the outdoor stairway (in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown) that is depicted in the film’s poster and that kind Father Damien is shoved down. There’s also the stairs inside the house where possessed Regan lives. In a scene reportedly cut from the initial release of the film because it was too scary, Regan spider-walks up them backward.
5. “Gone With the Wind” (1939)
Many key moments in this Oscar winner take place on the grand staircase that seems to occupy about half of Tara, but this is the most memorable. Often, not too far beyond a stairway, there’s a bedroom, which may be why, like the “Little Shop” sequence, this staircase scene — with Rhett carrying Scarlet for some Civil War loving — takes place on steps that lead to romance. (At least, that’s how we’re supposed to see it. Nowadays, we might wonder about issues of consent.)
6. “Seventh Heaven”(1927)
Bong must have been thinking of this sequence when he mapped out his scene in “Parasite.” This one creates a metaphor that’s the exact opposite of “Parasite”: A man who works in a sewer rises all the way from ground level to his apartment, a haven atop a tall building. It all happens in one take that helped director Frank Borzage win his Oscar, the first given for direction.
7. “Rocky” (1976)
It’s impossible to separate Bill Conti’s triumphant musical score from the visual of boxer Rocky Balboa, ascending the steps of Philadelphia’s main library as he trains for his big fight. Actually, it’s impossible to separate Conti’s score from anything in the Cinderella story that still holds up surprisingly well. Here, it’s clear that climbing higher and higher on those steps is about Rocky winning his battle with his own self-confidence. The top of that staircase means victory — and, you know, fines for overdue books. Watching the clip, it’s fun to see how everything — the edits, the camera movements, even Sylvester Stallone’s arm movements — is timed with the music.
8. “American Psycho” (2000)
Coming right after the movie reveals the full extent of Patrick Bateman’s psychosis, a scene in which he tosses a revving chain saw down a stairwell at a woman who is trying to escape from him feels like it represents a descent into hell.
9. “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946)
Technically, it’s somewhere between a staircase and an escalator, which is a whole ’nother list, led perhaps by the amazing escalator shootout in “Carlito’s Way.” But this one earns recognition because it connects this world with the next, literally a stairway to heaven, peopled with some of humanity’s all-time greats.