Charles Dyer’s play was one of a handful of British stage works adapted for the big screen during the late sixties / early seventies with Hollywood money locked up in Britain – director Peter Collinson’s first two feature films, The Penthouse (1967) and Up the Junction (1968) also stemmed from theatrical matter – but as happened to several of these movies, they’ve completely vanished from distribution and are today noted as curious career footnotes.
The casting in Staircase is especially novel, given Richard Burton and Rex Harrison had also appeared in another costly Fox production six years earlier – Cleopatra (1963) – and Harrison himself headlined Doctor Doolittle (1967) which, like Cleopatra, almost ruined the studio.
Perhaps that’s why Staircase was given a green light – it was essentially a two-character play with international stars, and it also allowed the studio to use some of the U.K.-generated funds that had to be used on British films. Stanley Donen had just made the cult film Bedazzled (1967), so what could go wrong?
Technically, nothing is wrong with Staircase. It’s a small film driven by sometimes elliptical, argumentative missives between two men whose 30-year relationship has degenerated into the kind of barbed marital rage Burton himself dramatized as husband George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). There are some striking similarities between the two films, and while the characters are clearly gay, their caustic / co-dependent relationship is wholly universal.
The core story follows the mounting angst as occasional actor Charles (Harrison) must appear in court to answer charges of improper behaviour. His nervous energy and paranoia are almost wholly directed at Harry, who keeps his pate wadded up due to a massive case of alopecia (hair loss). Both men work full-time in Harry’s hair salon, and have elderly mothers in need of special care. The brief scenes with the mothers are part of Dyer’s opening-up his play, plus street arguments in the environs of their grubby row housing complex, and some brief material in a local park (which the men amusingly brand as ‘the countryside’).
For Fox, the steeped vernacular of its dialogue made Staircase an impossible sale outside of Britain (the terrible original poster is headlined with the word “Whoops!”), and there are several exchanges where the references and period argot make the film perhaps a little more challenging for contemporary audiences.
Donen’s direction is very focused, and the compositions of the great Christopher Challis (he lensed Donen’s Arabesque, Sink the Bismarck!, and the gorgeous Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines [M]) are very striking, and although it takes a while to acclimatize to the two stars playing a couple, their roots in stage make them worthy choices in what was rather daring for leading men accustomed to big budget productions – especially Burton, who would soon glide into a string of WWII epics.
Dyer’s script has some very funny moments, but there’s an earnestness to the desperation of the characters whose arguments can be grand and viciously catty. (A scene where Burton lies prostrate on the barbershop floor, pounding the tiles in whiny rage is a little too rich.)
Perhaps satisfied with his score for Bedazzled, Donen engaged Dudley Moore to write the film’s music, and the results are a mixed bag: the harmonics of the main theme – performed in a great prologue prior to Maurice Binder’s Main Title sequence – are perfect for the lead characters, but the bulk of the music consists of bopping rock-pop instrumentals that seemed designed to aide audiences in accepting the film as a hip, bitter comedy-drama than something closer to unwashed kitchen sink. The music does lighten up some of the exterior sequences, especially the final park scene where Charles and Harry wait for heavy rainfall to taper off, and spot a couple disrobing and boffing under a tree in a moment that's weirdly reminiscent of Tinto Brass’ swinging London fantasy-drama Attraction / Nerosubianco (1969). (Brass also has a fixation for groping couples, and voyeurs in parks are recurring character 'motifs' in his work.)
An interesting career footnote and swinging sixties curio, Staircase is currently unavailable on home video. It’s perhaps noted today as the film Burton was making in Paris (the grubby British streets are quite convincing) while wife Liz Taylor was shooting the $11 million Fox flop The Only Game in Town [M] (1971) with Warren Beatty and director George Stevens.
Donen’s brisk theatrical career started to sputter after Staircase, and after a five year break he returned with The Little Price (1974), Movie Movie (1978), Saturn 3 (1980), and Blame It on Rio (1984). Cathleen Nesbitt, then 81, would appear in another twenty roles before passing away at 93 in 1982!
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan