Room at the Top (1959)

Synopsis:

An ambitious young man, Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey, The Manchurian Candidate), has finally landed a good job far away from his rickety hometown. Joe realizes quickly that a “9 to 5” job is not going to get him where he wants to be, so he sets his eyes on the daughter of the town’s wealthiest person. His plan starts to go awry when he falls in love with an older French actress (Simone Signoret, Les Diabolique).

Reaction & Thoughts:

Room at the Top is the first and (by far) my favorite of the so-called British New Wave kitchen sink dramas, commonly known as “The Angry Young Men films” (e.g. Look Back in Anger, This Sporting Life, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner). Room at the Top sets the tone, the look, etc., of a brand new potpourri of films that were meant to echo white blue-collar angst.

Room at the Top is technically vibrant. First-time director Jack Clayton (The Innocents), with the help of ace cameraman Freddie Francis (Sons and Lovers and The Elephant Man), pretty much established the rules of the game sort of speak — the jaded tone of the piece is backed up by an extraordinary sense of style. The film manages to be both stylish and realistic, a decidedly hard hat trick to pull off.

It’s a gutsy movie too. All films about working class people (that I’ve seen) are drenched in sympathy with the plight of the working poor. These films — The Grapes of Wrath, Norma Rae, etc. — tend to convey a sort of classism in reverse; rich people are bad, poor people are wholesome. Not in this movie.

Room at the Top doesn’t romanticize the working-poor — the proletarian guy is the most despicable character in the entire film. In fact, the most likable person in the whole movie is the rich young lady. But the movie isn’t content with playing with our expectations; it goes one step further and blurs the lines between villains and heroes, giving most characters good/bad traits.

The brilliant, Oscar-winning script by Neil Paterson (Man on a Tightrope), based on a novel by John Braine, also makes an interesting connection between misogyny and social mobility — the film explores the idea of men achieving success at the expense of women. That’s another curious take on social inequality, which makes me wonder how much sympathy the film really has for the “angry white male.”

Laurence Harvey is dynamite as the ruthless social climber. Harvey’s character isn’t your typical gold-digger, though. He’s driven by personal demons and insecurities that are all-too-familiar to many of us — despite his abhorrent behavior, Harvey’s Joe comes across as very human. Harvey is trying to buck an unjust social system where destiny is predetermined at birth, a very relatable struggle.

Simone Signoret is radiant, earthy and sublime as Harvey’s older lover. She deservedly won the Best Actress Oscar. Her expressive eyes telegraph every deep emotion. Signoret comes and goes out of the narrative — after all, this is Harvey’s film all the way — but she makes every moment of her screen-time count.

Donald Wolfit (Lawrence of Arabia) also gives a powerful performance as Mr Brown (Wolfit was the inspiration for Ronald Harwood’s famous play The Dresser, which was filmed in 1983 with Albert Finney as Wolfit). Hermione Baddeley (Mary Poppins) received an Oscar nomination for her role as Signoret’s best friend. I believe it is the shortest performance — three short scenes that amount to less than three minutes — to be nominated for an acting Oscar. Heather Sears (The Story of Esther Costello) unsuspected victim. 

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Bleak and cynical, Room at the Top is the antithesis of Frank Capra’s blue-collar utopia. This film avoids any pandering, spreading the blame on socio-economic problems everywhere, not just on the lap of the powerful & rich. If you are looking for a film that makes you feel good about being part of the working force, look elsewhere. The film slaps you with truths that none of us really want to hear — it’s incredibly powerful and timeless in that regard. B&W, 115 minutes, Not Rated.

Followed by Life at the Top (1965)

6 responses to “Room at the Top (1959)

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