The late 1950’s and early 1960’s were a golden time for British Cinema. Films like “The Ladykillers,” “The Smallest Show on Earth,” “I’m Alright, Jack,” and “The Mouse That Roared” were all comic gems. However, it was in drama where they really excelled during this same period. “The Angry Young Men” series of films that started with a number of British writers such as John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe became famous. Osborne wrote the classic play and later a film “Look Back in Anger.” Richard Burton starred as the angry protagonist in the film version. Other films influenced by these writers became part of Britain New Wave and includes “This Sporting Life,” “A Taste of Honey,” “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” and “Room at the Top.”
In “Room at the Top,” Laurence Harvey stars as Joe Lampton, a working class Brit who leaves his bleak hometown of Dufton to get a job as an accountant in the Treasurer’s office in the town of Warnley. Joe is ambitious and does not plan to stay at the bottom rung of the ladder for long. He also has eyes for attractive young women and soon spots Susan Brown (Heather Sears), the daughter of the town’s leading industrialist. Warned that she is way out of this working class boy’s sphere, Joe is not deterred and resents anyone who thinks he is not good enough. He begins seeing Susan but her parents send her abroad in an attempt to separate them and during this period. Joe meets Alice (Simone Signoret), an older lonely woman who he begins an affair with and who teaches him the social graces he lacked. Alice falls in love with Joe, however, while Joe like Alice and enjoys sex with her he is not in love with her. When Susan returns, Joe starts to see her again and they eventually make love resulting in Susan’s pregnancy. Mr. Brown attempts to buy Joe off and send him on his way but Joe rejects the offer. Brown then encourages Joe to marry his marry daughter as soon as possible also giving him a job in his office. There’s only one catch. He has to give up Alice and never see her again. Joe accepts this but he does want to tell Alice that he is marrying Susan.. Depressed and heartbroken at this news, Alice gets drunk and is killed in a car crash. Joe, guilt ridden, vanishes eventually meeting up with a young girl in a bar. Drunk, he tells the girl’s date to get lost. Later on, the date and a couple of his friends beat Joe up real bad. Joe, still blaming himself for Alice’s death marries Susan.
The film is dominated by the performances of Simone Signoret and Laurence Harvey. Signoret is a sophisticated woman full of sexuality that comes across the screen like lightening. A fantastic actress who I believe is incapable of giving a bad performance. Laurence Harvey is as equally great in the role of Joe Hampton, the ambitious working class hero. Joe. Like many people from the lower class is hostile when pandered and provoked by sarcastic and cutting remarks from the upper class.
This was only Jack Clayton’s third film as a director and he is masterful. Just watch the final scene in car as the newly married couple drive off.
At the time of its release, the sexual content of this film was considered very daring. Premarital sex, out of wedlock pregnancy, daring bed scenes was trying for the censors of the period. The film was a critical and commercial success. Simone Signoret won the Academy Award for Best Actress; Laurence Harvey was nominated for Best Actor. The film was nominated for Best Picture and Director Jack Clayton was nominated.