Although it does not lack some pat, familiar refrains of both the popular theatre and filmmaking of its era, Delbert Mann’s adaptation of William Inge’s play is nonetheless richly conceived and lucidly handled. The film caused a stir at the time for its comparative frankness about sexuality, and it’s still rather more adult than many contemporary takes on the subject, looking with acuity into the relationship between marital and sexual frustration and social and fiscal anxiety, and confirming that fear of losing the footloose freedoms and potencies of youth are hardly a contemporary invention.
In the mid-1920s, garrulous but failing Oklahoman paterfamilias Rubin Flood (Robert Preston) goes through a rough week when he loses his job as a salesman of livery as the motor car solidifies its place in American life. The film begins pointedly with
Preston hoping for some morning glory and getting a rebuff. Anxious over his lack of education and still half in love with his rambunctious youth spent as a roustabout, he’s scared, especially considering that even before this he wasn’t bringing in much money, a fact that was causing his wife Cora (Dorothy McGuire) much angst and enforcing their waned sex life.
Drunk and near-hysterical, Preston returns home and has a concussive fight with his wife, leading to his slapping her. He walks out and stays at the house of Mavis Pruitt (Angela Lansbury), a widow who’s quite in love with Preston, but he’s not quite in love with her. McGuire finds herself staring down the barrel of real misery, and makes an entreaty to her self-important, irritating, but finally loyal sister Lottie (Eve Arden) and her repressed doctor husband Morris (Frank Overton). Meanwhile, mousy daughter Reenie (Shirley Knight), who’s scared sick of making her social debut, strikes up a tentative romance with a cadet, Arthur Golden (Lee Kinsolving), whose lack of familial support or social ease as a Jew in the provinces, is eating away at his fragile psyche.
As ever in Inge the bottle of booze is secreted in the kitchen cupboard, but The Dark at the Top of the Stairs is finally not a bitter familial melodrama, but a kind of melancholy comedy, laced with hysteria, that perhaps tries a bit too hard to reassure us things will be mostly alright in the end, but then again its roster of home truths sting sufficiently to require such reassurance, especially after confronting the worst in human nature and social situations that can consume families and individuals with equal aplomb. Mann doesn’t entirely erase staginess from
Preston and McGuire’s performances, but they’re generally excellent in keeping their characters’ muted despair and determination to survive in balance, before the truly charming punchline. And the ever-terrific, ever-underused Knight and the tragic Kinsolving are salutary in their youthful talent.