Room at the Top (1959): Jack Clayton’s Superb British Drama, Starring Simone Signoret in a Brilliant, Oscar-Winning Performance

A ruthless critique of the British class system, Room at the Top is a seminal work in the social realist British cycle known as “kitchen sink.”
Room at the Top
Room at the Top poster 2.jpg

Original British 1959 poster
This cycle that last about four years and produced such great movies as “Look Back in Anger,” “The Entertainer,” “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” ” A Taste of Honey,” and “This Sporting Life.”
Our Grade: A (***** out of *****)

As one of cycle’s the first film released (in early 1959), Room at the Top set the tone and lured adult viewers back into the theaters, thanks to its frank treatment of sexuality and candidly mature dialogue. The movie broke new grounds in realistic dialogue, sexual frankness (it received X-rating in the UK), and indictment of class-consciousness.

In essence, it’s the tragic story of the social struggle of an unscrupulous man’s ruthless determination to better himself, told with harsh realism against the gritty, gray settings of Northern England.

Based on an angry young man’ novel by John Braine, the script (which won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar) was written by Neil Paterson. This superlative film, shot in black-and-white by maestro Freddie Francis, is one of the best of its era and the kind of mature fare that is not being made anymore in the U.K. or U.S. With this feature debut, Jack Clayton, who had previously directed “The Bespoke Overcoat,” was hailed as an important new voice in British cinema, joining the ranks of Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson.

Despite being grounded in the era’s socio-economics and class distinctions of British society, “Room at the Top” has withstood the test of time, largely because of Simone Signoret’s work, which was acknowledged with the Best Actress Oscar against all odds (see below).

Giving one of his strongest performances, emerging star Laurence Harvey plays Joe Lampton, the film’s ruthless anti-hero, hoping to move beyond his working-class origins. Arriving at a bleak Yorkshire industrial town, Joe secures a low-paying job as a government accountant, but soon realizes that professional skill won’t bring social status.

He sets his cap on Susan Brown (Heather Sears), the young, naive daughter of millionaire industrialist Mr. Brown (Donald Wolfit), who tries to break up the romance by shipping his daughter off to the Continent. Joe then begins an affair with Alice Aisgill (Signoret), an actress and married woman ten years his senior. When Susan returns, love clashes with ambition and upward mobility.

In one of the tale’s climactic scenes, Joe is told bluntly, “You can’t ruin two women, not in a town like this.”  But he does–at a price.

A modern morality tale, “Room at the Top” places a finger on what the angry young men are angry about. The hero’s happiness depends on an adulterous liaison. For a change, it seems as the only morally right course. “Room at the Top” is one of the few pictures in which the hero’ winning to love’s fortune makes for an unhappy ending

The upper-class Susan is presented as a commodity. Joe’s desire to possess Susan is indistinguishable from his wish to possess her status symbols (conspicuous consumption), such as the sports car in which he first sees her. When Joe returns home to his uncle and aunts, members of the Northern working-class, to announce his marriage to Susan, his aunt says: “I ask you about the girl and all you tell me about is her father’s brass.” Adds his uncle, “Sure it’s the girl you want, Joe, not the brass.” (In the novel, Joe’s lust for material possessions is described as “transformation into a successful zombie”).

In contrast to Susan, Alice stands outside the class system (so to speak) and its complications, a point made even stronger by casting the role with a non-British actress who doesn’t try to emulate British accent. The film draws poignant contrasts between theatrical performance and real life, as the scholar John Hill has noted. “You don’t ever have to pretend with me. You just have to be yourself,” says Alice. Joe, however, does become someone else at the end, when he adopts the name of Jack Wales.

To escape the Big City, its impersonality and corruption, the couple goes to Alice-hide-out by the sea, close to Nature, an actual location, where making love is wilder and more spontaneous than that with Susan, which takes place indoors in an artificial set.

The film unfolds as tragedy of a seducer and his moral awakening. He begins as a schemer, whose accent represents restlessly angry young men. Born to poverty in a North County manufacturing town, Joe is determined to catapult himself out of a world he never made or wanted. As a civil servant in another city, he meets the daughter of the tycoon, representing the prize and escape he has been waiting for.

Joe starts as a calculating egotist, determined to rid himself of low-caste stigma through marriage with heiress to a great fortune. Nonetheless, he’s a man in whom all conscience has not been killed. A seemingly selfish schemer, Joe discovers he can’t destroy all of his decency

Spoiler Alert: Last Sequence

After Joe tells Alice about his plan to marry Susan, the heartbroken Alice gets drunk in a pub, drives up to a hill where she and Joe used to go together, and crashes her car. Mortally injured, she dies over the ensuing hours before being found. Upon hearing the terrible news, Joe goes to the flat where he and Alice had their trysts. Elspeth, a friend of Alice’s who owns this flat, accuses Joe of “murdering” Alice. Distraught over the loss of Alice and blaming himself for her death, Joe drowns his sorrow in alcohol. After being beaten unconscious by a gang of thugs for “stealing” one of their women, Joe is recovered by Soames. With marriage and his new job with Susan’s father, Joe has seemingly accomplished all the goals he has pursued but no longer desires.

There are superb loves scenes between Harvey and Simone Signoret, who’s marvelous as the older women whom Joe loves yet he sacrifices to foster his ambition. Signoret’s mature sensuality is contrasted with the virginal shallowness of Susan, the rich, sheltered woman he eventually marries.

Signoret excels as a world-wise, ill-used married woman, anxiously groping for real affection, clutching at her last chance at real happiness. As the sensuous, older woman he leaves behind, Alice dies in an automobile accident shortly before Joe’s wedding to Susan.

From Book to Screen

In the film, Joe’s friend Charlie arranges for the room soon after they meet. In the book, the room is itself significant, and emphasized early in the story. Mrs. Thompson’s room is noted as being at “the top” of Warley geographically, and higher up socially than Joe has previously experienced. The room thus serves as a metaphor for Joe’s ambition to rise in the world.

Commercial Success

Made on a modest budget of £280,000 (less than $500,000), the film was a huge commercial hit internationally, earning $2,400,000 at the box-office.

Oscar Alert

Harvey was nominated for Best Actor Oscar, as Joe Lampton, the young opportunist Yorkshireman on-the-make, a hero without medals, mourning defeat when he should be enjoying victory.

Giving one of the great performances of all time, Signoret deservedly and unexpectedly won the Oscar. This was Signoret’s first British-speaking film after a distinguished career in the French cinema, one marked by many highlights: “Les Diaboliques,” “Casque d’Or,” and “Army of Shadows,” among them. (See Profile of Signoret).

The fact that Signoret won the Best Actress Oscar was a big surprise, considering her known leftist politics and standing in the industry. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper reflected the opinion of many others when she wrote: “I never minded when the Democrats won, but I drew the line when Simone Signoret hit the jackpot. I’m as broadminded as anyone, but that was ridiculous. Let her decorate her mantel with Picasso doves and the like.”

Hermione Baddeley received a Supporting actress nomination as Alice’s friend, whose apartment is used by the lovers for their tryst.

“Room at the Top” was the first British picture to present an uncompromisingly, disenchanted view of provincial urban life, of municipal corruption and of chicanery. Though mild by today’s standards, n 1959, it was considered a breakthrough in its frank treatment of on screen sex; in one “audacious” scene, Susan, after having been seduced, says that she had enjoyed the intercourse.

One of the most important breakthroughs an English film made in the American market since the 1930s, “Room at the Top” enjoyed huge success in the U.S. It is credited for bringing mature audiences beyond the art house patronage.

A disappointing sequel, Life at the Top, also starring Laurence Harvey, and directed by Ted Kotcheff, was made in 1965.

 

Credits:

Directed by Jack Clayton
Produced by John Woolf, James Woolf
Screenplay by Neil Paterson, Mordecai Richler (uncredited), based on Room at the Top by John Braine
Music by Mario Nascimbene
Cinematography Freddie Francis
Edited by Ralph Kemplen

Production company: Romulus Films

Distributed by British Lion Films (UK); Continental Distributing (US)

Release date: January 29, 1959 (UK); March 30, 1959 (US)

Running time: 115 minutes
Budget £280,000 (less than $500,000)
Box office $2,400,000

Cast:

Laurence Harvey as Joe Lampton
Simone Signoret as Alice Aisgill
Heather Sears as Susan Brown
Ambrosine Phillpotts as Mrs Brown
Donald Wolfit as Mr Brown
Donald Houston as Charlie Soames
Hermione Baddeley as Elspeth
Allan Cuthbertson as George Aisgill
Raymond Huntley as Mr Hoylake
John Westbrook as Jack Wales
Richard Pasco as Teddy
Beatrice Varley as Aunt
Delena Kidd as Eva
Ian Hendry as Cyril
April Olrich as Mavis
Mary Peach as June Samson
Anthony Newlands as Bernard
Avril Elgar as Miss Gilchrist
Thelma Ruby as Miss Breith
Paul Whitsun-Jones as Laughing Man at Bar
Derren Nesbitt as Thug in Fight on Tow Path