William Inge's “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” transferred to the screen from his Broadway play, depicts a family torn by problems. Like other plays by Inge, it's set in the 1920s, in a small Oklahoma town. The text's locale and historical time are not stated explicitly, though hinted through a mention of Valentino's silent The Sheik (1921).
Each member of the Floods carries his own baggage of problems. Rubin Flood (Robert Preston), the father, is a harness salesman whose livelihood is threatened by the automobile. His nagging wife Cora (Dorothy McGuire) is sexually unresponsive. But Rubin is a gentleman, stating with pride: “I never cheated on Cora once since I've been married.” Old-fashioned, he also believes that a man should not burden his wife with his problems (even those related to his job). Reenie (Shirley Knight), their shy daughter, is introverted, and Sonny (Robert Eyer), a fearful mother-fixated boy, is unable to protect himself at school.
The catalyst of events is Cora's malicious sister, Lottie (Eve Arden), called from the City for a family conference. Her arrival makes things worse by setting up new problems. Like Cora, Lottie is miserable, suffering from a bad marriage; she provides advice she herself should, but doesn't, follow.
The film lacks subtlety, making every point that was understated in the play too obvious and explicit. And there are additions as well as omissions from the play. The son's sexual awakening, the play's focus, is just one, rather unexplored, element in the film. A new character, the “other woman,” Mavis the widow (Angela Lansbury), who did not exist in the play, is introduced in the film. Most scenes are confrontational, as when Rubin tells his wife: “I'm going to see Mavis, I'm going to drink booze, and I'm going to raise any hell I can think of.” But his attraction to Mavis is also problematic since she will not go to bed with him.
Lottie is prejudiced against Jews and Catholics, but hers and the town's prejudices are only superficially examined. Reenie is in a state of shock when a Jewish boy she befriends commits suicide because of anti-Semitism. And there is, of course, gossip about Rubin's relationship with Mavis.
Like all of Inge's works, the movie is about repression, both sexual and emotional, and the urgency to come to terms with these problems.
The film also deals with the interplay between establishing self worth and gaining social approval. For instance, fearing the dark at the top of the stairs, Sonny, the Mama boy, learns to defend himself and, at the end, chases the school's bullies. Dark at the Top of the Stairs is one of the first movies to deal with male menopause (though not seen as such at the time). Clearly, it's Rubin's last job: With the increasing use of automobiles, there is no demand for harness.
Shirley Knight received her first Supporting Actress nomination for this picture, but the winner was Shirley Jones for “Elmer Gantry.” Knight's second nomination, also in the supporting league, was for “Sweet Bird of Youth,” in 1962.