ROOM AT THE TOP made waves as the first of the ‘kitchen-sink’ or ‘angry young man’ movies that Britain brewed as the 1950’s drew to a close, frank and bitter class-consciousness dramas that laid bare simmering dissatisfaction with the stratified status quo. Not just first out of the gate, the 1959 get-ahead-and-suffer saga was the most honored and successful of the lot, making global stars of its leads and introducing a talented and temperamental director. *
A Yorkshire industrial city in 1947 has a new arrival in prickly, ambitious ‘Joe Lampton’ (Laurence Harvey, 30), a clerk determined to make his way into the sort of money and respectability rarely offered to those in his layer of society. His campaign to woo rather sheltered ‘Susan Brown’ (Heather Sears, 23), daughter of a wealthy and powerful businessman, is complicated by his simultaneous ongoing affair with mature and sensual ‘Alice Aisgill’ (Simone Signoret, 37), unhappily married to a philandering rotter. When want & need collide with propriety & power it’s a given that people are going to get hurt.
SUSAN: “Seriously Joe, there’s something wrong, isn’t there? Don’t you like the way I make love?” JOE: “Oh, I like it very much. It reminds me of a good set of mixed tennis.”
Neil Paterson’s incisive script was adapted from John Braine’s novel, Jack Clayton directing his feature debut. Done for £250,000 (around $720,000 then,$7,468,000 in 2023), in Britain it was the 3rd most-attended film of 1959. In the States, 89th place and $2,700,000 was a solid return for an “adult” foreign film. The critical praise was seconded by industry applause and six Oscar nominations, winning for Signoret as Best Actress and for Paterson’s screenplay. Harvey was nominated as Best Actor and it went up for Best Picture, for Clayton’s direction and for Supporting Actress in Hermione Baddeley–her performance, totaling 2 minutes and 19 seconds of screen time, remains the shortest ever nominated.
Awards are nice, peer cheers welcome, critics occasional praise balm for when they casually slag you. But it’s the work that has the longest shelf-life, and the stabbing performances from Harvey and Signoret hold naked honesty and raw emotion decades after the champagne corks hit chandeliers. Signoret’s minutely observed yet naturalistic work bested heady competition from big stars Liz Taylor, Doris Day and dual Hepburn’s Katherine and Audrey—and the missing Marilyn Monroe, who deserved to be in there for Some Like It Hot. A star in France, she drew top-billing and the production brought her international recognition.
But it’s Harvey’s conflicted Joe who dominates the story; a cad with a conscience, ensnared by his thirst for recognition and acceptance, self-mired in warring motives, trapped by a social order that holds all the cards and won’t hesitant to cheat. Not an endearing actor, Harvey’s inbred cynicism and arch manner too cutting to allow for much warmth, he nonetheless could be compelling in the right role: Joe Lampton’s complexity (and dilemmas) allow him latitude for greater range than his other credits before and after (though we much prefer him in a certain western epic). Besides his emotional scenes with Signoret, he nails telling encounters with supporting stalwarts John Westbrook, Allan Cuthbertson and Raymond Huntley—the movie is loaded with truly nasty types (the characters, not the players).
115 minutes, with Donald Houston, Donald Wolfit, Richard Pasco, Ambrosine Phillpotts, Mary Peach, Derren Nesbitt, Wilfrid Lawson. Followed six years later by Life At The Top, Harvey co-starring with Jean Simmons (taking over from Sears) and Honor Blackman. Repeating their roles were Wolfit, Cuthbertson and Philpotts.
* London came out ‘Swinging’ in the mid 60’s, thanks to Beatles, Stones and 007, but only after shedding the ire-lined coat of ‘angry young men’ who rued Britannia from roughly 1958-64, producing grey-toned grimness via exorcisms like Look Back In Anger, The Entertainer, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner and This Sporting Life. Thank God for Peter Sellers and Petula Clark.
Jack Clayton’s output thereafter was slim, just six more features over 28 years, but they included The Innocents and The Pumpkin Eater. Signoret’s win didn’t signal much in the way of a Hollywood run, though six years later she was again up for Best Actress in Ship Of Fools. Initially, Harvey took off in style, winning fans in The Alamo (to many he’ll always be Col. William Barret Travis), BUtterfield 8, The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm, Summer And Smoke and The Manchurian Candidate.