Every week, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
Room at the Top (1959)
The class wars concept has always been handled in a not-so-subtle way by manipulative and creative minds alike. In the latters’ case there are probably two ways to do it. You either use your characters as toy soldiers to pinpoint some didactic pre-determined class-conscious moral or use the stereotypes that go with that to establish your characters’ starting position and let them develop from there. Just like Jack Clayton did back in 1959 in his first feature film, Room at the Top, based on a novel by John Braine.
It’s the rags-to-riches story of Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey), a working class bloke and WWII vet who gets a chance to escape his miserable hometown of Dufton and work as a civil servant in a richer, classier place called Warnley. As he arrives at his new work he meets the boss and from their brief talk, we are left with no doubts about whether or not this is an upgrade for our protagonist. “I’m not surprised that you wanted to leave Dufton as soon as possible. You’ll find big differences here you know,” the head of the office points, “You’ll meet a different class of people. We pride ourselves in being civilized here in Warnley.” Joe makes one last try to keep his inferiority complex in check, “Dufton is not much of a place, but we’re not exactly savages there, you know Mr Hoylake,” only to get a patronizing grin and a punchline, “You think not?” He has no answer to that. He shares a similar disgust for Dufton.
He then meets his future flatmate, the likable Charles Soames (Donald Houston) and the other co-workers. Outside the boss’s office Joe gets cocky again, and as he looks out the window a pretty, delicate girl catches his eye, while stepping into a convertible. “Is that what you really want?” Charles asks. “That’s what I’m going to have,” Joe responds with certainty.
A few days later, at the amateur dramatic club’s premiere Joe watches as two women are juxtaposed on stage, the girl from the street, and an older one, who has a much more impressive presence. As he finds out they’re Suzan Brown (Heather Sears), heiress to the local millionaire and Alice (Simone Signoret), a french woman, married to an obnoxious local guy named George Aisgill. After the play is over Joe goes backstage along with Charles to get introduced to the rest of the company. In this brilliant sequence we get all the hints about the characters and their present or future association. Joe finds Suzan alone and throws his best complement at her, moments before he gets acquainted with his upper class rival, Jack Wales, a respectively cocky fellow and a war veteran himself. In another corner Alice asks about Joe and Teddy, half-joking, tells her he’s in love with Suzan. As he leaves the theater, she stares at him tellingly in a mirror.
From that moment on Joe Lampton puts his scheme to win Suzan Brown at work. He enrolls at the dramatic club to get warmer but instead of her, his co-star in the new play is Alice. They become close and though she gives him advice on how to seduce Suzan, he ends up falling for her. Meanwhile Suzan becomes very fond of him and that makes her parents worried. She’s sent to Europe for a trip while Joe receives a sudden job offer from his hometown. He decides to stay in Warnley and keep juggling two very different passions, Suzan and Alice, and two very dangerous men, Mr. Brown and George Aisgill…
Class differences aren’t just a matter of structure but also, a matter of perception. Joe Lampton is undoubtedly young, handsome and able. He also poses as pompously sure of himself, amoral and cunning, but only in a certain context: that of the lower class person who is denied by right the chance to reach the top. For him that’s a case where different rules apply, even if he masquerades his hunt for Suzan as a romantic thing. In his scheme though, there is no typecast for the foreign lady, an outsider who’s unintentionally stuck in the same structure that Joe wants to infiltrate. He wants in while she wants out, so they meet in that gap in the middle, where nobody cares about the other person’s class origins. That’s liberating for Joe as a man, but there is also Joe the social entity who has to fight back at his demons: the very legitimate feeling of his potential being limited by forces he can’t control and a strong inferiority complex feeding from his working class roots and his shabby old hometown.
Jack Clayton and his writers — probably because they have some great literary material to begin with – weave greatly the story of that conflict, between the real person and the perception of himself in the social structure he always fancied. By putting all the characters in the mix they create a plausible world around Joe, a world which he also has to infiltrate as a character himself. The dialogue is very well written, with all the melodramatic cliches used to the story’s benefit while for a seemingly simple set-up, a lot of interaction takes place, giving the film a great pace and a relative suspense. The creators give us a lot of scenes to establish Joe’s position in his new environment and his secession from the old one, the reason he’s trapped in the struggle to prove himself and get that room at the top up to the point he has lost all contact with his previous identity – it’s made totally clear at a working class bar scene where Joe makes a desperate attempt to find some familiarity somewhere. It all contrasts with the scenes along Alice where he loses himself in a newfound escape, where he still has no control but his master is not an aristocrat bunch from Warnley.
The movie is very well cast, all the actors are precise and convincing in their small but important parts. Laurence Harvey is tailor-made for the role of Joe Lampton, a well-built good looking man, bearing a distinct roughness when expressing his words, and a warm uneasiness when expressing his feelings. But the star here is Simone Signoret, in the – quite familiar I guess — role of the sensual mature Frenchwoman, who totally overwhelms Joe with her combination of dominating sex-appeal and subliminal vulnerability. She owns the screen every time she appears – background or foreground — which was enough for getting her the Oscar that year.
Room at the Top is one of the first “kitchen sink” dramas that altered the British cinema’s status in cinematic history. But historical context aside, it’s a compelling drama, with a timeless premise, crafty screenwriting and precise directing.