Entertainment Magazine

Room at the Top

Posted on the 07 September 2014 by Christopher Saunders
Room at the TopRoom at the Top (1959) is typical of Britain's Free Cinema movement, the struggles of working class Britons amidst postwar drudgery. Laurence Harvey earned an Oscar nod, though he's roughly as convincing a Yorkshireman as he was a Texan in John Wayne's The Alamo. Nominated for six Oscars, Room's worthwhile for its cast and direction, even if its "what price success?" arc is predictable.
Joe Lampert (Laurence Harvey) arrives in the Yorkshire town of Warnley. Boasting an accountancy degree and decorated war record, he seems destined for drudgery. But Joe eyes success, pursuing Susan Brown (Heather Sears), daughter of the disapproving local magnate (Donald Wolfit). When Joe makes Susan pregnant he's forced into marriage, with an offer of corporate advancement. Joe's "success" comes at heavy cost, losing his lover Alice (Simone Signoret) and self-worth.
Based on John Braine's novel, Room at the Top unfolds like a morality play. Scenarist shapes a familiar story, the small-town boy corrupted by big city life. Joe's working class background earns him derision; even his experiences as a POW earn contempt since he didn't escape. Joe's parents warning him not to covet success, yet it's the only way to escape his rotten life. The resulting tangle of romance, sex and greed results in a dour film.
This all plays predictably, yet Room benefits from Jack Clayton's excellent direction. Clayton paints Warnley as a soul-crushing Golgotha: bare offices, dingy bars, endless and slag heaps. Even Joe's country retreat is muddy and overrun with weeds. Freddie Francis's harsh, Expressionist close-ups and style touches (a mugging drowned out by train whistles) heighten the atmosphere. Where most kitchen sink directors eschew style, Clayton opts for depressing stylization - and it's bracingly effective.
Laurence Harvey channels his posh charisma into a conflicted cad, alternately ruthless and remorseful. Oscar-winning Simone Signoret (Army of Shadows) exudes smoky allure and desperation; simpering Heather Sears can't compete. Donald Huston is Joe's amiable roommate. Donald Wolfit (Lawrence of Arabia) is an agreeably amoral tycoon, obsessed with image over morality. Familiar character actors flesh out minor roles: Allan Cuthbertson (Tunes of Glory) as Alice's husband, Wilfrid Lawson (Pygmalion), Derren Nesbitt (Where Eagles Dare) as a barroom thug.
Ultimately, Room at the Top proves even bleaker than most kitchen sink dramas. Jimmy Porter rages against injustice; Billy Fisher flees into fantasy. Joe Lampert compromises integrity for success, absorbed by a society he despises. His story continues in a sequel, Life at the Top (1965), wracked by regret and self-loathing.

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