A number of recurring motifs, themes and ‘signature’ styles have been attributed to Stanley Kubrick over the years, mostly from an auteurist perspective. These include, for example, the use of mirrors, facial close-ups/masks, doppelgangers, nudity and breasts, circular movements, dolly and tracking shots, corridors, chess-patterns, jump-cuts, pre-existing music, insert photography, ironic signage, one-point symmetry, intertitles, slow or rapid zooming, bathroom locations, grotesquery, absurdity, etc.
Under investigation here is the little-referenced or analysed deployment by Kubrick of the repeated production design/motif of steps, stairs, fire escapes, ladders, elevators and escalators – whether used in-situ or as studio constructions – as locations to elicit dramatic elements in both still photography and cinema. Of particular interest and as a specific case study of this characteristic aspect of Kubrick’s mise-en-scene is the sequence in The Shining (1980) where Jack Torrance taunts and threatens his increasingly frightened wife, Wendy, on the Overlook hotel’s Colorado Lounge central staircase.
As Philippe D. Mather has amply demonstrated, precursors to Kubrick’s cinematic style can be glimpsed already amongst his many thousand photographs taken while working for Look magazine (1946-50): “Kubrick displayed a tendency to create a very deliberate and controlled photographic mise-en-scene in the form of static compositions.”1.A central aspect of Kubrick’s evocation of stairs is precarious equilibrium and the contingency of motion while ascending, descending or remaining static. Kubrick’s studied focus on and composition using these architectural elements is made emblematic by the choice of cover image adorning Rainer Crone’s Stanley Kubrick: Drama & Shadows – Photographs 1945-50.2 A woman descends a Columbia University staircase while holding an imposing stack of large books, barely constrained by her arms. Her poise is careful as she looks at her feet and the steps below. The moment captures her precarious balance, mid-step, and records a natural hesitancy in her ambulation. She appears mindful that a misstep could result in a perilous fall. The image is shot from below where the viewing angle is upward. The image is geometrically symmetrical with the subject centred. Horizontal rows of parallel steps that recede into the background are flanked by a vertical banister and handrail on opposite sides. It is a set-up Kubrick explored throughout his photographic and cinematic oeuvre and something I will return to shortly.
Three published books on Kubrick’s photos3 detail numerous Look assignments that Kubrick inflected with similar representation. These include ‘candid’ shots of adolescents and young adults (several orchestrated and some of friends) caressing and kissing in subways, on fire escapes and alcoves away from view.
A racetrack assignment includes shots of punters hanging onto banisters in anticipation of winnings as they watch horse races. Elsewhere Kubrick manages to capture other emotions and hesitancies, such as the awkwardness of mature-age couple Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower on the steps of their New York residence. Some of Kubrick’s late 1940s images of New York subway escalators anticipate the vertiginous plunge through 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) stargate suggesting a gravitational pull towards the vanishing point of their static perspective. Other images connote the precarity of alighting metal fire-escapes, such as “shoeshine boy” Mickey scaling a Manhattan tenement to access his rooftop pigeon coop or the cast and crew on fire escape ladders during the location filming of Jules Dassin’s Naked City (1947) that prefigures the setting of several scenes in Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss (1955).
However, I am not suggesting in any way that Kubrick invented of necessarily re-invented the iconographic use of stairs in motion pictures. Indeed, some of the most dramatic and visually stunning sequences in film history use this location-motif. From the canonical Odessa steps sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) as an object lesson in dramatic montage through to Hitchcock’s films (the up/down dynamic in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the dolly-zoom reversals to elicit subjective giddiness in Vertigo (1958), the ominous staircase in the Bates mansion in Psycho (1960)…), the architectural appeal of stairs, steps, ladders etc., have fired the imagination of screenwriters, production designers, directors and editors for generations. Nevertheless, Kubrick’s contributions in this domain have received scant attention, of which I will list a few indicative examples.
As early as his short subject Day of the Fight (1951) and ‘amateur’ features Fear and Desire (1953) and Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick employs stairs in both utilitarian (functional) and symbolic (metaphoric and allegorical) modes. Killer’s Kiss is replete with numerous staircases, fire escapes, subway entrances, ladders and service elevator scenes. Gloria and Davy are introduced descending their parallel apartment staircases, converging in the building’s foyer. Kubrick self-consciously references the motif when Gloria walks up a steep and narrow staircase, tiled in checkerboard style, with a telling sign “Watch Your Step”.
Two sequences illustrate the polarities of precarity in Paths of Glory (1957). Long dolly shots inside the trenches reveal a series of ladders and platforms that facilitate the exit of troops to enter “no man’s land” and the military objective of “the anthill”. When Colonel Dax attempts to marshal his troops in a second wave assault, despite his best efforts at leading the charge he cannot even clear the trench ladder as retreating wounded soldiers and corpses fall back on him. Later, in the officer’s command chateau, Dax is summoned by his superior, General Mireau, who pauses mid-way along an opulent, marble staircase and rebukes Dax for “insubordination”. The later confrontation confirms spatially the domineering structure of military rank as Dax is ordered to climb the steps and address his ‘superior’ officer. Neither up nor down, the conversation implies the making or the breaking of the Colonel. In both cases, Dax is prevented from ‘climbing the ladder,’ literally blocked by bodies. Ironically, Mireau’s own superior, the wily senior General Broulard, later assumes mistakenly the Dax’s act of betrayal is a cynical, political step to garner promotion. Staircase confrontation and treachery also informs the setting in A Clockwork Orange (1971) where Alex reinforces his dominance over fellow droogs when he finds his gang waiting, conspiratorially, at the foot of the stairs of his municipal flat.
In Dr. Strangelove (1964) a service ladder inside the B-52 separates crew levels and is used by Major Kong to descend and manually open the jammed bomb bay doors, releasing the thermonuclear weapon to target. Lolita (1962) contains many intriguing scenes where stairs convey a structural sense of social hierarchy and its usurping. Lolita and her mother Charlotte engage in frequent domestic squabbles across the staircase space, usually with Lolita contesting parental authority or Charlotte attempting to enforce it. Closely prefiguring The Shining staircase scene with Jack and Wendy, after verbally and violently sparring with his nemesis Claire Quilty, jilted paedophile Humbert Humbert shoots him from below, the climax and coup de grace occurring only as Quilty reaches the top of the stairs.
In Spartacus (1960) the same metal gates and barriers that enforce the separation of gladiators from the slave-owning elite are removed and redeployed in an uprising by the captives to scale their compound, dispatch the Romans, and escape. Earlier, the power hierarchy is established in conventional social geometry with Romans and slave overlords residing in elevated villas with the gladiators confined underground across two subterranean levels. Spatial hierarchies enforced by stairwell access are also prominent in Eyes Wide Shut (1999). The imposing curved stone staircase of Ziegler’s mansion is illuminated by cascading lights and Dr Harford is summoned to attend a medical emergency (the overdose of “call girl” Mandy) on the level above. Later, a masked Harford is led upstairs at an upstate mansion where he encounters characters participating in an orgy. Both scenarios present elevated locations involving privilege, sexual promiscuity and risk.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) finds drill sergeant Hartman perched delicately at the apex of a tall timber frame that the Marines are forced to climb as quickly as possible, goading, then screaming “get the fuck off my obstacle!” at Private Pyle who is a couple of rungs below and immobilised by fear. In the film’s second half, the Vietnamese sniper is revealed to be firing from an elevated position of hidden vantage inside a derelict Hue building. She is ultimately confronted and shot (by Rafterman) as she clambers a down set of steps (shown in slow motion) to fire her AK-47 repeatedly at Private Joker. Similarly, a near demolished country residence in Barry Lyndon (1975) serves as high ground for Prussian troops to resist the advancing army. Dragooned as a British deserter by the Prussians, Barry shows great valour in rescuing his captor, Captain Potzdorf, by carrying him downstairs through the burning building; a selfless act that then endears Barry to the officer.
In 2001 Kubrick playfully disorients spectators by inverting and subverting spatial orientation in the depictions of microgravity during translunar flight and interplanetary travel. The perspective of a rotating camera rig appears to make astronauts Bowman and Poole defy the laws of physics by climbing up/down/sideways along a central ladder inside the spaceship Discovery, only to disappear inside small passageway.
As this terse overview demonstrates, Kubrick returned to the representational affordances that stairs enabled throughout his mise-en-scene. The historical, formal and compositional elements of photographic and cinematic style are fully deployed around stairways across a range of modes, both allusive and literal in their dramatic actions (or paradoxically, the absence of action). Kubrick’s characters frequently use stair-spaces to flee, hide, pursue, confront, pause, challenge, mock, kill, move (up or down, or ‘sideways’ in the case of 2001), advance and regress.
Stair scenes repeatedly depict characters ascending or descending geometrical space at times of uncertainty, intrigue, suspense or confrontation. Arguably, the exemplar of Kubrick’s virtuosic evocation of precarity is signified, in The Shining, by Wendy and Jack’s confrontation on the Overlook’s Colorado Lounge staircase. A number of myths have circulated around this scene. Some claim it holds the Guinness Book of Records for the largest number of takes4 and as evidence of the “torturous” on-set conditions Kubrick exposed principal that actor Shelley Duvall had to endure.5 Yet the numerical claim is entirely unsubstantiated. The oft-cited 127 takes for the scene is patently false. Continuity reports and recollections by crew who were on set at the time (First Assistant Director Brian Cook) or involved in post-production (Editor Gordon Stainforth) attest to this.6
A close reading of the scene – commencing with Wendy’s entry to the Colorado Lounge and culminating with Jack lying unconscious at the base of the stairs reveals it is comprised of 48 separate shots running 8 minutes 17 seconds, recorded over three days7. The crux of the staircase scene, from Wendy’s first backward step upwards to her stationary, reverse-shot POV of the immobilized Jack, runs 1 minute 52 seconds. Cumulatively, the differing set ups, angles and staging over a few days may have created well over a hundred takes, but they were certainly not devoted to a sole set-up and certainly not all focussed on Wendy/Shelley, or Jack, or his stunt double (Jack Cooper).8
Similarly, in recent years the Internet has provided access to a number of production stills taken during the early phases of recording this scene. These images show a complex and parallel array of cameras mounted on a lengthy dolly track on the Colorado Lounge stairs being pulled along by the crew. However, as revealing as these stills are, they do not show how the final scene was shot. The complex rig was constructed at the suggestion of camera operator and Kubrick alumni, Kelvin Pike. Yet the idea was soon abandoned and replaced with the ubiquitous steadicam, operated by Roy Andrew, “understudy” to inventor Garrett Brown.9 The slight and gently staggered movement up the stairs that provides Wendy and Jack’s perspectives is clearly filmed with a steadicam and several shots reveal the banister upon which the dolly would have run.
Regardless of this mythology, the released scene remains slow, compelling, unnerving, suspenseful, brutal and ultimately highly kinetic. Kubrick’s mise-en-scene, action and editing is so fluid it can on first viewing create the impression of having been recorded as a single take, or two long-takes intercut. As noted above Kubrick often places and paces his scenes of confrontation on stairs with a detailed precision to emphasise contingency, precarity and to generate suspense or tension. The Shining delivers this in spades.
From the point at which Wendy is horrified to discover Jack’s obsessive and deranged manuscript, interrupted by Jack’s surprise entry asking sardonically “How do you like it?”, Kubrick films Wendy clutching a baseball bat, nervously retreating, while Jack slowly advances, taunting her mercilessly with patronising and demeaning commentary – discourse that progressively degenerates into patriarchal rants and violent, homicidal threats. Increasingly over his career, Kubrick often sought wide variation in the performance of actors across multiple takes, ostensibly because he wanted maximum coverage but also because the director never quite knew what he might record in the process. In this stunning eight-minute scene Jack Nicholson delivers a bravura performance using multiple vocal variation across lines of dialogue – from the over-exaggerated childish parroting of Wendy’s “confused” words (“As soon as possible!”), to his own monotone repetitions, manic exasperation and murderous rage. It is what Garrett Brown describes as Nicholson covering “the spectrum – from apathy to hysteria.”10
Kubrick frames both Wendy and Jack in near direct POV shot/reverse shots as Wendy meanders evasively about the Lounge and begins her backward ascent of the Overlook’s central staircase. However, close analysis reveals both eyelines match, but not directly ‘down the barrel’ of the camera lens. Wendy and Jack look slightly above and to the side of the camera’s gaze, perhaps better enabling audience subjectivities and associations with characters through conventional intercutting, unlike Jack’s direct and unsettling gaze into the camera lens as reaction shot to when he first ‘sees’ (before we do) Overlook barman Lloyd.
Again, it is Kubrick’s skilful evocation of precarity in this staircase scene that is so compelling. Jack’s chiding and groping action is all the more unsettling for Wendy who remains remarkably balanced (while wearing Ugg boots!) walking backwards up the flight of stairs, step by precarious step, constantly vigilant for possible modes of escape. Unlike the linear fluidity of the preceding floor-level dolly tracks, the ascending steadicam footage (frontwards and backwards) uncannily reveals the camera operator’s momentum by rhythmically matching the carefully placed footsteps of the actors. This both enhances the scene’s verisimilitude, elapsing in ‘real’ time (i.e. not conventional cinema’s erasure of ‘dead’ time) but also by adding a phenomenological resonance to its reception. Viewers experience the motion and angular pitch of the suspenseful action literally alongside the actors via the recoding apparatus.
The logic of this scene and its momentum dictates that the climax will occur at its apogee, which it does. Over the course of the characters’ guarded movements, across horizontal and vertical planes, Wendy swings the bat to ward off jack dozens of times, finally striking his right hand as he lunges to grab at it. The reaction by Nicholson is masterful. It conveys both pain, shock, recoil and incredulity. With Jack exclaiming “Aahh! … goddamn,” Wendy’s momentary hesitation is overcome by a commanding, follow-up blow that impacts Jack’s head with a sickening thud and accompanying shrill musical high note.
It is at that moment something odd, fleeting and wonderfully cinematic occurs. From the point at which Jack instinctively registers the whack, recoiling backwards with arms raised, mouth agape and eyes wide open – all framed over the shoulder from Wendy’s POV – the next cut presents a wider long-shot that captures Jack (i.e. no longer from his POV) hovering, infinitesimally, in mid-air before tumbling backwards, twice rolling over before crashing to a halt at the bottom of the staircase landing. Here, against all odds, Wendy has beaten back and conquered the perilous advances of her predatory and maniacal husband, something she will continue to do with great courage and resourcefulness in order to save her son Danny and escape the Overlook’s evil miasma.
As the above overview and close reading indicates, an abiding interest of Kubrick’s photographic and cinematic oeuvre concerns the placement of characters and production elements within a mise-en-scene that functions as a cognitive space to include steps, stairs, fire escapes, ladders, elevators and escalators. At the thematic core of these location-motifs is risk, equilibrium and the precariousness of balance – whether that be physical or emotional. For Kubrick the recurrence of such settings serve to maximise dramatic tension while simultaneously alluding to metaphoric and allegorical associations embracing mobility, danger, control, determinism and hierarchies of power.
- Philippe Mather, Stanley Kubrick at Look Magazine: Authorship and Genre in Photojournalism and Film (Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2013) p. 234 ↩
- Rainer Crone, Stanley Kubrick: Drama & Shadows – Photographs 1945-50 (New York: Phaidon Press, 2005) ↩
- Philippe Mather, Stanley Kubrick at Look Magazine: Authorship and Genre in Photojournalism and Film (Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2013); Rainer Crone, Stanley Kubrick: Drama & Shadows – Photographs 1945-50 (New York: Phaidon Press, 2005), Donald Albrecht and Sean Corcoran, eds. Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs (New York: Taschen, 2018) ↩
- Kieran McMahon, “23.7 Facts About Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’”, IndieWire, 26 March 2013, https://www.indiewire.com/2013/03/23-7-facts-about-stanley-kubricks-the-shining-100294/ ↩
- see Garrett Brown’s commentary on The Shining Blu-ray, Warner Brothers, 2007 ↩
- My thanks to Howard Berry for sharing key elements of his extensive Shining research material and to Director Brian Cook for his invaluable insights into the production ↩
- It should be noted that the shorter, international version of the film commences the scene immediately after Halloran passes the car/truck crash on the snow covered road on his way to the Overlook, eliminating the preceding scene with Wendy exiting the caretaker apartment with a baseball bat, and instead lap-dissolving to Wendy as she enters the Colorado Lounge and passes the foot of the staircase ↩
- Brian Cook, phone interview with Mick Broderick (24 May 2020) and Howard Berry, phone interview with Mick Broderick (25 May 2020) ↩
- Brown was then absent on assignment shooting Rocky 2 (Sylvester Stallone, 1979): see Garrett Brown’s commentary on The Shining Blu-ray, Warner Brothers, 2007 ↩
- Garrett Brown’s commentary on The Shining Blu-ray, Warner Brothers, 2007 ↩