The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (film)

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs is a 1960 American drama film. Academy Award winner Delbert Mann directed the work of Robert Preston and Dorothy McGuire in the production. Shirley Knight garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and Lee Kinsolving was nominated for a Golden Globe Award as Best Supporting Actor. Knight was also nominated for two Golden Globes. Mann's direction was nominated for a Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing in a Feature Film. It was based on the Tony Award-nominated 1957 play of the same name by William Inge.

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs
Poster of the movie The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.jpg
Theatrical poster for the film
Directed byDelbert Mann
Produced byMichael Garrison
Written byHarriet Frank Jr.
Irving Ravetch
Based onthe play, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs
by William Inge
StarringRobert Preston
Dorothy McGuire
Eve Arden
Angela Lansbury
Shirley Knight
Music byMax Steiner[1]
CinematographyHarry Stradling Sr.
Edited byFolmar Blangsted
Release date
  • September 22, 1960 (1960-09-22) (Premiere-New York City)[1]
  • October 8, 1960 (1960-10-08) (US)[1]
Running time
123 minutes


During Prohibition in Oklahoma, Rubin Flood is a successful harness and saddle salesman. However, with the advent of the automobile, his job is becoming more difficult. He is married to Cora, someone he considers a demanding wife and over-protective mother. When he learns his company is closing, he is unable to face his wife, and stops at a pharmacy to partake of "medicinal" alcohol. Cora is out with her daughter Reenie, buying a dress for a birthday party of one of her classmates.

Rubin cannot bring himself to tell Cora he has lost his job, arguing about how much Cora has spent on Reenie's dress, with Cora's lamenting that she always has to watch every penny. The couple's younger son Sonny is being bullied at school. Sonny has a fear of the dark. Determined to get him to stand up for himself, Rubin attempts to teach him to box. While sparring, he inadvertently strikes the boy too hard. Cora, now incensed, tears into Rubin, eventually accusing him of having an affair with Mavis Pruitt, a local widow. A livid Rubin slaps Cora, then storms out of the house. Reenie witnesses her parents' dispute. She runs into the street, causing a motorist to swerve and strike a tree. The driver, Sammy Golden, is relatively unhurt, and he and Reenie become attracted to one another.

Cora calls her older sister Lottie to tell her that Rubin hit her. Rubin, still slightly intoxicated, shows up at Mavis' beauty salon, which also is where she lives. He is seen going in by two town gossips. Rubin tells her Cora has ignored him for years, and while he has remained faithful, he desires Mavis. When she doesn't accept his halfhearted advances, Rubin falls asleep on her parlor sofa.

Days later, Lottie and her husband are there for dinner. Cora asks Lottie if she and the kids can come stay with her. Just as she asks, Rubin returns home to apologize. The two gossips call Cora to tell her, which re-ignites the argument. He accuses Cora of rejecting him sexually, and she argues that she can't be in the mood when she spends her days worrying about money. Reenie's friend Flirt and her boyfriend arrive, with a date for Reenie, Sammy. Lottie's bigotry is revealed when she suggests that Cora and Rubin might not want to allow Reenie to accompany a Jew to the party.

Sammy and Reenie kiss at the party, but Harry Ralston and his wife walk in on them, berating her for bringing a Jew to the country club, where they are not allowed. Embarrassed, Sammy and Reenie leave. Sammy bemoans the bigotry in the world, and drops Reenie at home, where she finds Rubin on the sofa. He confesses that he has lost his job and doesn't know how to tell Cora. The following morning, they learn Sammy has attempted suicide. Reenie rushes to the hospital, telling him that she doesn't care what people think.

Cora promises Sonny to stop being so over-protective so he can grow into a responsible adult, then receives a call letting her know that Sammy has died. Cora heads over to Mavis's salon. She pretends to be a customer, before revealing she is Rubin's wife. Mavis confesses that she has been in love with Rubin for years, but that Rubin has always been faithful to Cora. She also reveals that Rubin has lost his job.

Rubin has found a new job as a salesman at an oil drilling equipment company. He returns home to find Cora waiting for him. She has sent Reenie to Lottie's for a few days to help her come to grips with Sammy's death. Cora and Rubin declare their love for one another and a commitment to paying more attention to each other's needs. As they embrace, Sonny returns home with a friend, one of his former tormentors from school. Rubin pays for the two boys to go see a movie, After they leave, he follows his wife up to the bedroom.



Warner Brothers announced in January 1960 that it would be producing a film version of Inge's play, directed by Delbert Mann, and starring Robert Preston and Dorothy McGuire.[2] During rehearsals for the production, Mann used the same process he had used since his first film, Marty, in 1955. First, the cast read through the entire script, then they rehearsed the entire screenplay on set prior to the commencement of filming.[3] The film went into production in late January.[1] By the beginning of March an actor's strike was looming, scheduled for March 7. Warner Brothers began going to seven days a week production schedules, in order to complete filming before the strike.[4] In mid-July, it was announced that The Dark at the Top of the Stairs would headline the launch of the fall season, opening at Radio City Music Hall after Labor Day.[5] The film opened on September 22, 1960 at Radio City Music Hall in New York.[1]


Variety gave the film a favorable review, noting that it was "well cast and persuasively acted".[6] However, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times did not give the film a favorable review, calling it a "flawed adaptation of the original stage play".[3] The Film Bulletin gave the film a good review, if they did find it uneven, calling it a "rather absorbing drama, with goodly shares of humor, warmth, and tragedy". They felt that Preston's performance was fine, but would have been better if he had brought more "humility and tenderness" to the role. They found McGuire's performance "splendid", and thought Mann's direction was professional, but that he focused on "certain scenes singularly, rather than integrating them into the whole".[7] Motion Picture Daily gave the film another good review, although they were not kind to Mann's direction, finding it to be the weakness in the picture, saying that he "failed to draw out some of the most vital scenes all the urgency and pathos that Inge had wrote into them". They praised the work of Harriett Frank and Irving Ravetch in their adaptation of Inge's play to the screen, and felt the acting was exceptional. They called Preston's work "excellent", and McGuire "warm and appealing"; they felt the rest of the cast was well-done, and singled out Lansbury's performance as outstanding. The one sour note in the acting corps, the felt, was Arden's performance as the aunt, which they felt worked during the comedic sections, but was "out of key" during the dramatic moments.[8]

Shirley Knight earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Reenie Flood.[9] Knight also received two Golden Globe nominations for her performance: for Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture and New Star Of The Year - Actress. Lee Kinsolving also received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as "Sammy Goldenbaum".[10] Mann's direction was nominated for a Directors Guild of America Award for "outstanding directorial achievement".[11] The film was voted one of the ten best of the year in 1960 by the National Board of Review.[12][13] Eve Arden's performance rated among the five best of the year by supporting actresses, according to The Film Daily's poll of over 1800 critics.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d e "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs: Detail View". American Film Institute. Archived from the original on April 17, 2016. Retrieved April 17, 2016.
  2. ^ "This Is Your Product". Film Bulletin. January 18, 1960. p. 27. Retrieved September 5, 2017.
  3. ^ a b c David C. Tucker (2011). Eve Arden. McFarland. p. 128. ISBN 0786488107.
  4. ^ "Studios Rush To Beat Actor Strike Deadline". Motion Picture Daily. March 1, 1960. pp. 1, 7. Retrieved September 5, 2017.
  5. ^ "Music Hall Premiere Announced for "Stairs"". Motion Picture Daily. July 19, 1960. p. 2. Retrieved September 5, 2017.
  6. ^ Variety Staff. "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs". Variety. Archived from the original on April 17, 2016.
  7. ^ ""The Dark at the Top of the Stairs"". Film Bulletin. September 19, 1960. p. 18. Retrieved September 5, 2017.
  8. ^ "Review: The Dark at the Top of the Stairs". Motion Picture Daily. September 14, 1960. p. 3. Retrieved September 5, 2017.
  9. ^ "The 33rd Academy Awards: 1961". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on April 17, 2016. Retrieved April 17, 2016.
  10. ^ "Winners & Nominees 1961". Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Archived from the original on April 18, 2016. Retrieved April 17, 2016.
  11. ^ "Six Films Nominated For Directorial Awards". Motion Picture Daily. October 20, 1960. p. 3. Retrieved September 5, 2017.
  12. ^ "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs: Notes". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on October 23, 2016. Retrieved October 23, 2016.
  13. ^ "'Sons and Lovers' Named '60's Best". Motion Picture Daily. December 27, 1960. p. 3. Retrieved September 5, 2017.

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