What I’ve Been Watching: Room at the Top (1959).
Who’s Responsible: Jack Clayton (director), Neil Paterson (screenwriter), Laurence Harvey, Simone Signoret, and Heather Sears (stars).
Why I Watched It: Dude, it’s a classic.
Seen It Before? No.
Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 8.
Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 2.
Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 7.
And? Clayton directed very few features, but two of them are among my favorites in the horror/fantasy genre: The Innocents, based on Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. He worked with Harold Pinter on The Pumpkin Eater, and directed the big-budget version of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford. Marking Clayton’s feature-film debut, this adaptation of John Braine’s novel won Oscars for Signoret and Paterson (plus nominations for Best Picture, Clayton, Harvey, and Supporting Actress Hermione Baddeley); it spawned a sequel with Harvey (Life at the Top) and a short-lived Thames series starring Kenneth Haigh, Man at the Top.
Set in late 1940s Yorkshire, England (beautifully captured with extensive location work by cinematographer Freddie Francis), the story is straightforward, even familiar, and might have risked veering into soap opera were it not for two factors. One is Harvey’s iconic performance as Joe Lampton, and the other is the kitchen sink/angry young man style of the film, which kicked off the British New Wave. Leaving his dead-end factory town for the comparatively cosmopolitan Warnley, Joe immediately sets his sights on a pair of potentially ill-advised targets: Alice Aisgill (Signoret), interested but unhappily married, and Susan (Sears), daughter of local mover and shaker Brown (Donald Wolfit).
The social gulf that makes Susan seem unattainable is emphasized by Joe’s contemptuous treatment at the hands of her usual companion, Jack Wales (John Westbrook), who passes up no opportunity to flaunt his superior status, military rank, and war record. Joe is not surprisingly drawn to the comforts of Alice, but a ten-year difference in their ages leads to an argument and a brief separation, during which Joe seduces Susan. Her pregnancy forces Brown to offer Joe her hand and a job, and having been warned to break it off with Alice by both her husband, George (Allan Cuthbertson), and Brown, Joe does so, only to learn that the broken-hearted woman went on a bender that ended with a fatal car crash.
The supporting cast is quite something, with Joe’s best friend, Charles Soames, and the thug who beats him up at the climax played by, respectively, Donald Houston and Derren Nesbitt, later to co-star as villains in Where Eagles Dare. The rest is like a genre-lover’s game of Spot the Brit: Sears (Hammer’s The Phantom of the Opera), Wolfit (Blood of the Vampire), Westbrook (The Tomb of Ligeia), Richard Pasco (The Gorgon), Ian Hendry (Repulsion), and a host of other familiar faces. Harvey’s Joe Lampton is a satisfyingly complex figure, and at the fadeout we understand—even if Susan does not—that his tears are inspired by the tragic love he has lost, rather than by the wedding that has just ended.