Adapted from John Braine’s novel of the same name, Room at the Top is the story of one man’s disillusionment with class and society in post-war Britain. Trading in morals and recalling the disenfranchisement he learnt as a POW during the war years, Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) not only believes that he can, but that he is entitled to wage class warfare in an effort to rise to the top. Born and bred in Yorkshire and having moved from the factory town of Dufton to Warnley, where he sees opportunity to rise through professional ranks, he takes on an accountancy role that positions him within a social whirlwind of beautiful women, powerful, rich men and decorum that could be learnt but won’t be allowed.
Furious and infatuated with young Susan Brown (Heather Sears), the daughter of an industrial magnate (Donald Wolfit), Jack embarks upon a dangerous game of gross manipulation and deception. Though he has fallen for Susan – ‘love’ at first sight – he is also drawn to the more mature and experienced Alice (Simone Signoret), a French actress whose attitude and lovemaking draw him closer. Taking physically from one woman (Alice) and romantically from the other (Susan) he plays the two women off of each other for his own gain. Until, that is, he has ruined both women’s lives.
Braine, born just outside of Yorkshire, left school at sixteen, worked in a shop, a factory and a laboratory before the war and finally as a librarian. Dubbed as one of the ‘Angry Young Men’ of the 1950s whose writing was characterised by disillusionment with British social values of the time, Braine’s novel offered the perfect story for screenwriter Neil Paterson to adapt for Jack Clayton who would bring it to life on screen and pioneer a new style of cinema in Britain. Other noteworthy writers grouped with Braine as 'Angry Young Men' include John Osborne and Kingsley Amis.
A key title in the British New Wave of social realist dramas, Room at the Top explores the problems of British class society, the terrifying extent to which women fell subject to male will, the post-war disillusionment of the time and the rise of the capitalist dream in working class individuals. A box office hit, the filmalso opened doors for other filmmakers, proving to producers and studios at the time that audiences were prepared to see gritty storylines, unpleasant characters and bleak endings if the narrative, aesthetic and performances were up to scratch.
But the true heart of the success of this film is the complexity of Jack’s character. Not as simple as drawing a line between good and bad, Jack is proud of his class but wants to rise above it. He is in love – at least in part – with both women, yet treats them both with hideous contempt and cruelty. The barriers of social class, outdated and oppressive social views and the unfairness of divorce law work in tandem with Jack’s greed to push him well beyond tortured and into the depths of corruption. Low angled shots, often magnifying Jack’s furrowed brow, reveal his ambition and grotesqueness at once.
The film was well received on release and was the first feature film directed by Jack Clayton, who went on to enjoy a searing screen career directing Truman Capote’s screenplay of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents (1961) and Harold Pinter’s screenplay of Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater (1964). Clayton is revered today as one of Britain’s great directors specialising in bringing literary classics to the big screen. But however intense the anger is in the writing, his cinema remains one of stunning cinematography, deeply affecting tonality, moving performances and heartbreaking truths. After angry young men had their moment at the top a new wave of aesthetics washed through Britain, one that continues to resonate today. Room at the Top is a stalwart of British cinema and an absolute big screen must-see.
Written by Tara Judah, Co-director at 20th Century Flicks.
The UK premiere of the 2K restoration of Room at the Top screens on Sunday July 31st as part of Cinema Rediscovered. With thanks to Park Circus and Romulus Films. Presented on DCP, a 2K restoration by Mark Bonnici and Graham Jones (Deluxe).