As I watched this video essay I was reminded of one of the many videos I have found on my late-night YouTube deep dives. It is this video of Roger Ebert asking Alfred Hitchcock, on behalf of a graduate student, about the role of staircases in his films. Hitch delivers a very Hitchcockian answer, “I think staircases are made to go up and down.” He then goes on to describe how staircases can be very pleasing to eye aesthetically, especially in their ability to show movement.
This video essay, “Alfred Hitchcock’s 39 Stairs,” is a wonderful illustration of Hitchcock’s use of the staircase in his films. He is the master of it. In fact, he’s so good at it he makes us forget just how difficult it is to make something as simple as walking up a flight of stairs so suspenseful: the camera movement, blocking, pace of the action, and camera angle all must be in perfect harmony in order to create the maximum dramatic effect.
The composition of this video essay helps to illustrate this dramatic build up. We start with shorter shots, where a character may only walk up or down a few steps. As the film progresses, the shots of the staircase get longer and longer. The video essayist also alternates between shots of a character going up the stairs and shots of a character going down the stairs. This beautifully illustrates not only how important the staircases are in Hitchcock’s films, but also movement, and how the character gets from point A to point B.
It also shows us how movement up or down a staircase can change depending on the pace of the actor, as well as their body movement and expression. We have contrasts like the one between Cary Grant bounding up the steps in To Catch a Thief and Joan Fontaine slowly building up the courage to walk up the stairs in Rebecca; we have Tippi Hedren confidently walking up the steps in Marnie, and Ingrid Bergman nervously walking down the stairs in Spellbound. This essay does a great job not only in providing us with 39 great and different examples, but also in illustrating how Hitchcock is able to masterfully use such a mundane object and turn it into the most suspenseful part of his film.