By Gary M. Kramer.
The 1959 classic drama, Room at the Top, based on John Braine’s “angry young man” novel, has just been released on DVD by Kino Lorber in a 2K Restoration Special Edition. The film was a sensation at the time of its initial release for its frank treatment of sexuality and class. Moreover, it was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, winning two, for Best Actress (Simone Signoret) and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Looking at the film today, Room at the Top still holds up. It delivers a powerful message about ambition and entitlement as Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) arrives in Warnley to take an accounting job at the town hall. Joe is introduced to viewers, riding a train, with his stockinged feet up, blowing smoke rings. He has all the promise of a young man making his way in the world. How that promise gets changed and corrupted forms the basis for this absorbing drama.
As Joe arrives in Warnley, he soon learns that he is in a world of “different people.” The top is the fashionable district, where money and class are out of reach for working-class men like Joe. However, this situation only makes Joe more driven in his desires and determination.
When Joe takes in a local theater production, he becomes smitten with Susan Brown (Heather Sears) – just watch the way he stares at her backstage, sizing her up – the pretty young daughter of the town’s biggest industrialist, Mr. Brown (Donald Wolfit). However, Joe is constantly being degraded by Susan’s boyfriend, Jack (John Westbrook), and repeatedly told by others that he is wasting his time with Susan; he needs to set his sights on a woman more in his league.
Joining the theater to be with Susan, Joe ends up befriending Alice Aisgill (Signoret), a ten-years-older woman trapped in a loveless marriage to George (Allan Cuthbertson). Joe comforts Alice who is hurt and lonely because of her husband’s philandering. And Alice sees right through Joe, noting his jealousy towards Jack and his ambitions with Susan. As they drink and talk, however, Joe and Alice slowly start to fall in love. A romantic scene where they share a cigarette, and then a kiss, is beautifully lit, and passionate. They are soon meeting as “loving friends” for trysts in her friend Elspeth’s (Hermione Baddeley) apartment.
Joe’s affair with Alice shows his romantic side, and he is more likeable with her than he is fixated on Susan. His interest in Susan is downright creepy, and her parents try to keep Joe from Susan by sending her abroad. Joe is also offered a job back home in Dufton, as Mr. and Mrs. Brown hope of “get rid” of Joe. He is also told he will be denied a promotion if he continues to pursue Susan. However, Joe delights in the fear he has created. When Susan returns, she and Joe spend an afternoon together and Susan gives Joe what he wants, sexually. It is a telling scene that shows the true nature of their relationship.
In contrast, when Joe and Alice spend a weekend together at a country house, their relationship also comes into bold relief. It is how Joe navigates his conflicted emotions that make this melodrama so absorbing.
Joe is an intriguing antihero, and the dashing Laurence Harvey makes him a ruthless social climber that viewers will root for, even though he often behaves badly. His naked ambitions may be transparent to Alice as well as Susan’s parents, but Room at the Top belies his sense of pride and entitlement – Joe feels he deserves a chance at a girl like Susan, without his lack of money, or connections getting in the way. And he is willing to manipulate things to his advantage. A lunch Joe has with Mr. Brown is among the film’s best scenes of power being wielded on both sides of the class equation.
Of course, the lesson Joe comes to learn as the story plays out, makes clear how difficult it is for him to acquire what he truly wants. Or thinks he wants. As Alice tells him, in a moving scene, Joe is stronger when he is more himself, and not who he wants to be.
As Alice, Simone Signoret is simply luminous. As cold-hearted as Joe is, Signoret’s Alice is a warm, sympathetic character, who falls deeply in love with Joe, a man whom she believes loves her. When Alice and Joe have a fight one afternoon, and call off their affair, Signoret is magnificent, dressing Joe down, and unapologetic about her past (which irks him), or her actions. Her strength here, however, only makes her more vulnerable when Alice and Joe rekindle their relationship. A sequence of them separating at a train station is full of emotion because of Signoret’s remarkable, affecting performance. She engenders such compassion that viewers feel her pain. A later scene between the lovers is even more devastating.
But Signoret’s finest moment, arguably, is an episode at a bar where she looks at herself in a mirror. Worried about her aging, depressed about her relationships, and having imbibed one too many drinks, Alice takes an honest look at herself in the mirror and accepts what she sees. It speaks volumes about her character.
Director Jack Clayton films Room at the Top in a very distinctive style, that often employs close-ups to get into the mindset of the characters. It’s an effective approach, but at times can feel dated. Clayton does shoot some key scenes through doorways or staircases or windows, that add a layer of distance that also helps frame the film’s morality. When Harvey is seen back in Dufton, or recovering after an attack, the visuals emphasize his mindset.
Clayton certainly appreciates the striking figure Harvey cuts, and a scene of him entering Susan’s house (a mansion, really) in a jet black suit appearing almost at odds with chintz patterns and lighter background showcase just how out of place he is. In contrast, Signoret is often filmed in softer focus, emphasizing her sensuality.
Room at the Top was an important film back in the day for its critique of the British class system. It remains a stinging commentary on how things have not changed much in 60 years.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.