Stanley Donen | 1969 | 96 mins | France / USA / UK
A late '60s comedy about a gay couple who run a hair salon together, take care of their beloved aging mothers (one in an old age home and one in the couple's spare room), and constantly fight about everything under the sun.
Harry (played by an uncharacteristically dowdy Richard Burton) is sort of round-ish, fussy, dour and has his head constantly swathed in an unflattering bandage, an odd accessory for a hair stylist, to say the least. Charlie (a dandied-up Rex Harrison) is in his fifties, still handsome in an aged-leather sort of way. He's a bitchy queen in tight pants and mascara. "I'm wearing tight Italian pants on the inside", Harry tells him at one point, lamenting the loss of his own girlish figure.
Casting the former Julius Caesar and Marc Antony as a bickering pair of decaying lovers in a dingy East London flat was an inspired but perhaps misguided choice on Stanley Donen's part. Putting the Hollywood heavyweights in this otherwise humble adaptation of Charles Dyer's play makes the whole endeavour seem more campy and ridiculous than the premise and script would have on their own. Still, Staircase has its glimmering moments of pure genius, and it's so bewilderingly funny, besides.
The storyline here concerns the mounting tensions between the two men as they await a summons for Charlie to appear in court on a charge of behaving "in a manner calculated to bring depravity" - that is, performing in drag at a nightclub called "Adam's Apple". As they wait for the important piece of mail to arrive, they go on with their daily drudgery - working at the salon, taking care of their mothers, and spewing vitriol at each other for the "30 turgid years" they've spent together.
Dudley Moore's sparse score underlines the film's subtle sadness with clever uses of old hymns (most memorably "All Things Bright and Beautiful" being sung by a grave digger and his young son, down the street from the pair's hair salon). Dyer's script is acrid and vitriolic, but deep down you know Charlie and Harry love each other too much to ever stop being such mean jerks.
Really worthwhile, but essentially impossible to track down (it's never been released on DVD and VHS copies are rare at best) except through a few torrent sites specializing in obscurities.
My favourite line (uttered by Harrison to Burton): "If you don't shut up I'll stick a skewer in my ear and go to hell as a kebab!"