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The Dark at the Top of the Stairs

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs(1960)


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In the 1920s, Rubin Flood, a traveling harness and saddle salesman, lives in a small Oklahoma town with Cora, his wife of seventeen years, their teenage daughter Reenie, and younger son Sonny. When Rubin is about to leave on a road trip, his company's owner tells him that he is facing bankruptcy due to the increasing popularity of motorized vehicles, and has to lay him off. To bolster his confidence, Rubin stops at the local pharmacy and, in a back room, drinks some "prescription" alcohol. While there, he meets Harry Ralston, whose daughter is good friends with Reenie. Rubin does not like the nouveau riche Ralston, who shot himself in the foot in order to collect insurance money with which to indulge his nagging wife, and then invested some of the cash in oil wells and became rich. Meanwhile, Cora is helping Reenie buy a dress for Ralston's daughter's birthday party to be held at the country club. Reenie, however, has low self-esteem and regards herself as a wallflower. Later, after Rubin and Cora have an argument about the cost of Reenie's dress, Cora complains that she always has to scrimp to make ends meet. Sonny, friendless, insecure and scared of the dark, returns home having been teased by some local boys, and Rubin attempts to teach him how to box, but accidentally hits him hard, further angering the overprotective Cora. When Cora accuses Rubin of having a relationship with Mavis Pruitt, a young widow who runs a beauty parlor, he slaps her, then drives off. Upset by her parents' dispute, Reenie runs off distractedly into the street, causing a young man, Sammy Golden, to crash his car into a tree. Unhurt, Sammy, a student at a nearby military school, takes Reenie to a soda fountain and tells her that his mother, a movie actress, has virtually abandoned him. Rubin, meanwhile, shows up, slightly intoxicated, at Mavis' house, which also serves as her place of business, and scandalizes customers Lydia and Edna Harper, two gossiping sisters. Rubin tells Mavis that he needs her but that, at the same time, he is a family man and has never been unfaithful to Cora. Unable to seduce Mavis, Rubin falls asleep on her sofa. Four days later, on the night of the country club party, Lottie, Cora's older sister, and her husband Morris, whom Cora had phoned after her fight with Rubin, come from Oklahoma City for dinner. Cora breaks down and tells Lottie that she does not know where Rubin is and asks if she and the children can move in with her. Rubin returns during dinner and apologizes to Cora for hitting her, but before she can react, Cora receives a phone call from one of the Harper sisters detailing Rubin's recent activities. The sister's gossip provokes Rubin into bringing the crux of their recent problems into the open and he accuses Cora of rejecting him sexually. Cora responds that she cannot make love at night after days filled with bitter feuding over money. Rubin also tries to give advice to Morris, who is dominated by Lottie. When Reenie's friend, Flirt Conroy, and her date arrive with Reenie's blind date for the party, Reenie is delighted to discover that he is Sammy Golden. Lottie, a bigot who dislikes Catholics, realizes that Sammy is Jewish. When Sammy suggests to Rubin that he may not want his daughter to go out with him and offers to leave, Rubin refuses to consider his suggestion. After the young people leave for the party, Lottie, who is childless, confesses to Cora that Morris no longer makes love to her and that she has never enjoyed sex and states that she wishes someone loved her enough to hit her. At the party, Reenie and Sammy get along very well but, during an innocent kiss, are discovered by hosts Ralston and his wife. Mrs. Ralston accuses Reenie of turning her daughter's party into a petting party and, when she learns that Sammy is Jewish, tells Reenie that she has put them in a very embarrassing situation, as the country club is restricted and does not allow Jews as members. Although Ralston insists that his wife does not know what she is saying, Sammy feels that she does and is "the voice of the world." Sammy and Reenie leave, and while he is driving her home, Sammy tells Reenie that they can never be friends, that he will always have to be on the outside looking in. Reenie begs to stay with him, but Sammy tells her that he wants to drive around by himself for a while. When Reenie finds her father trying to sleep on the sofa, he tells her that her mother does not know that he has lost his job. The next morning, Flirt brings the news that Sammy has tried to commit suicide and is in the hospital. While Reenie tells Sammy, whose mother has ignored his plea for help, that she wants to counteract all the people who have rejected him and have him become part of her family, Cora tries to make Sonny understand that she has kept him too close to her and that he must learn to stand on his own two feet. When Reenie returns home, her mother tells her that she has just phoned the hospital and learned that Sammy died after Reenie left. Later that day, Cora, posing as a customer, goes to visit Mavis. When she reveals that she is Rubin's wife, Mavis tells her that she has been in love with Rubin for years but that their relationship has never been consummated. After Mavis tells her about Rubin losing his job, she also advises Cora not to resist her husband's conjugal demands. Meanwhile, Rubin has a successful interview for a job selling oil drilling equipment, with a company whose president respects his native selling ability and knowledge of the territory. After the interview, Rubin finds Cora waiting for him, and she apologizes to him, tells him about Sammy's death and that she has sent the brokenhearted Reenie to stay with Lottie for a few days. Cora also admits that she has been to see Mavis and confesses that she has been mistaken about her. Rubin tells her that he is doing the best he can and loves and needs her. They return home to find that Sonny has made friends with one of his former tormentors and, as Cora awaits her husband in their upstairs bedroom, Rubin persuades the boys to go off to an afternoon movie.