The Staircase (Soupçons) (2004)

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Released 17-Oct-2005

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Featurette-"Death on the Staircase" BBC Documentary
Featurette-"Rankin on the Staircase" BBC Documentary
Interviews-Cast-Interviews withthe Key Players
Deleted Scenes-Inside Defence Team Meetings
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 2004
Running Time 513:00
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered
Multi Disc Set (3)
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Shock Entertainment
Starring Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI $39.95 Music Jocelyn Pook

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.78:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    In 2002, French film maker Jean-Xavier De Lestrade earned an Oscar in the documentary category for Murder On a Sunday Morning. That film dealt with the tragedy of a man wrongfully accused of a brutal murder.

    In The Staircase De Lestrade returns to the theme of the inner workings of the criminal justice system in America. This time he has an even more dramatic premise. He films the action as it takes place.

    On 9 December 2001, Michael Peterson, the husband of a successful executive businesswoman, dialled 911 to report that his wife was dying after falling down the staircase in their mansion in Durham, North Carolina. When police arrived at the house she was dead. Within hours the police inquiry turned into a murder investigation with Michael Peterson the prime suspect. He was arrested and charged with first degree murder.

    Not long after De Lestrade read about the case and started filming both sides of the trial preparation. What follows is a thrilling examination of the U.S. justice system from the early investigations right through to the trial and eventual verdict.

    To film the documentary De Lestrade followed the Peterson family for two years and shot some 650 hours of footage which was culled down to eight 45-minute episodes. Most of it was shot with a single camera.

    As a documentary filmmaker De Lestrade is almost without peer. He follows the action quietly and impassively as damaging revelations and prosecution hi-jinx unfurl. His fascination is with the way in which seeming irrelevancies assume great importance and how suspicion and guilt are often unfairly intertwined.

    There is no voice-over as De Lestrade lets the drama speak for itself. As one bombshell drops the iconic lawyer for Peterson turns to the camera and says:” OK well you guys got a much better film now”.

    Equally sad and shocking, The Staircase is six hours of riveting entertainment. Once hooked you will hang on every word and gasp at each new revelation. Matching the tragedy of the death is the fact that individual family members are compelled to choose sides, forever tearing the family apart.

    A word of warning. Aside from the moderate coarse language the documentary includes actual crime scene footage and autopsy photos. The images are grisly although the film maker does not linger on them for too long.

    The Staircase has everything required for a good drama. Sex and scandal, death and doubt, money and prejudice. Add to that a cast of characters that linger in the memory and the sight of David Rudolf, the flamboyant chief defence lawyer, battling a team of dogged and wily prosecutors for the hearts and minds of the jury who sat through 55 days of evidence.

    It would be a crime punishable by death to reveal the verdict in the Peterson case which comes after a painful wait in the final episode.

    An artful filmmaker has come under his own criticism over the question of his distance and independence from the Peterson team. The internet runs hot with debates amongst supporters and detractors. Like them, any family watching this documentary is likely to be debating into the long hours of the night the crucial question: “Did he or didn’t he?”

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Transfer Quality


     The Staircase was shot on digital camera and has been transferred flawlessly to DVD.

    Shot in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, it has fortunately been given a 16x9 enhanced transfer.

    There are no artefacts or blemishes in the transfer.

    The footage is uniformly good with clear crisp visuals and well defined colours. That said, the majority of the image is either interior or overcast exterior so there is no vibrancy of colour on offer. Murder (or accidental death) is a cold grey business.

    The documentary also includes a variety of video footage from other sources such as police videos and television extracts. These are of variable quality but ultimately this adds to rather than detracts from the documentary.

    There are fairly constant changes in focus which have resulted from the brisk camera movement. Again, these highlight the drama. As said, the documentary was largely shot using a single camera which is a remarkable achievement and a tribute to the skill of Isabelle Razavet, the Director of Photography.

    The Staircase comes on two dual layered disc and one single layered disc for extras. I could not determine the layer changes and assume that they appeared between episodes.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    The Staircase is rendered in Dolby Digital 2.0 sound (224 Kbps). This is entirely adequate for this type of programme. The lack of surround sound does not affect the impact of the show. Subwoofer activity is not missed.

    In particular the dialogue is clear and easy to hear despite the fact that the filmmakers are often on the move, whether it is following Michael Peterson through the Peterson mansion or in the car with the lawyers. Sound man Yves Grasso does an excellent job of keeping up with the camera and recording all the dialogue.

    The DVD is in English only and is not subtitled. There are brief sections in Episode 3 that are in German but the dialogue does not justify translation.

    The documentary series is scored by Jocelyn Pook with a sorrowful theme which emphasises the depths of the drama and the sorrow.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    The Staircase comes with over two hours of extras on a separate single layered disc. This includes an interesting documentary from the BBC called Death on the Staircase following up the main players after the verdict. In the “only in America” category are the interviews with the jury. Some points of this documentary are just as telling as the series itself as the BBC exposes more tricks and treats.

    Further materials include a series of interviews with the key players including the Peterson family members filmed prior to the verdict and an interview with Michael Peterson after the verdict.

    The disc includes a further documentary, Rankin on the Staircase, which consists of a series of interviews with leading British crime writers hosted by Ian Rankin. Each responds to the series and the characters with relish. Most focus on the somewhat cold natured personality of Michael Peterson. The documentary is interesting if somewhat lightweight.

    Finally, there an extended defence team focus group meeting regarding the 911 call. Those used to the Australian criminal justice system will be startled at the lengths to which the Defence team go to prepare the case. This is just one example.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

   The Region 1 version of The Staircase includes the following features not present on the Region 4 release:

    Whilst the Making of feature sounds interesting, the Region 4 version scores higher on the inclusion of the BBC Documentary which is a quality documentary in itself. The fact that the show is spread out over 3 discs rather than 2 also allows the DVD more room to breathe.


   The Staircase is a riveting documentary that shocks and surprises at all turns. Irrespective of the verdict The Staircase provides ample fodder for discussion and debate. It is cleanly rendered on DVD. Highly recommended for those with an interest in true crime or legal systems, but it is just as likely to appeal to anyone who likes a good drama.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Trevor Darge (read my bio)
Monday, May 01, 2006
Review Equipment
DVDOnkyo DV-SP300, using Component output
DisplayNEC PlasmaSync 42" MP4 1024 x 768. This display device has not been calibrated. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-SR600 with DD-EX and DTS-ES
SpeakersJBL Simply Cinema SCS178 5.1

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