There's room at the top they are telling you still,
But first you must learn to smile as you kill,
If you want to be like the folks on the hill
—John Lennon, "Working Class Hero"
The democratization of the British armed forces during World War II, coupled with the class-leveling necessities of fighting Nazi Germany, was the beginning of the end of the deeply ingrained class system in Britain. This process was hastened by the election in 1945 of the first Labour government in years and the radical social policies that followed, including creation of the National Health Service, nationalization of major industries, and heavy taxation of the rich. During the late 1950's and early 60's, an attitude of anti-establishment contempt was expressed in literature by the Angry Young Man writers like John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe, whose bitter young male protagonists rebelled against the twin constraints of conformity and the remnants of the class system.
In John Braine's 1957 Angry Young Man novel Room at the Top, the main character doesn't so much rebel as attempt to crash the socioeconomic and class barriers in an effort to make it to the Top. The movie version of the novel, released in 1959, is really a hybrid of grim social realism and tragic love story. It's a bit like the Paul Newman movies of the time, The Young Philadelphians (1959) and From the Terrace (1960), but substitutes harshly realistic working-class settings for the slickly photogenic surfaces of the Newman movies. In the American movies Newman is able through his talent and persistence to crash the barriers to success—the personification of the Great American Myth that with hard work anyone can succeed. Not so in the British version; here the young man must claw his way to success.
The young man is Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey), an accountant who works for the local government in Warnley, a grim industrial town in the English Midlands, a few years after the end of the war. Early in the movie, when Joe stands at the window of his dreary bed-sitting room looking up at the hilltop neighborhood where the richest people in town live and tells a colleague from work that he will live there one day, he knows it will take more than hard work to get there. Ruthlessness and manipulation of others are the only means of self-advancement in this world of expectations limited by class identity.
From the moment he first sees Susan Brown (Heather Sears), the virginal young daughter of the most powerful man in town, Joe is convinced that she is the way out of the dead-end, working-class life that seems to be his destiny. The difference in class between the two, however, seems to be a nearly insurmountable obstacle to Joe's aspirations. Susan's family are appalled at his pursuit of her, especially her snobbish mother. Susan's boyfriend, an ex-officer, seems to turn up every time Joe tries to get Susan alone, constantly taunting Joe's working-class background by calling him "Sergeant" and ribbing him for having been a prisoner of war. Even Joe's friends warn him off his plans by repeating the message of "stick to your own kind."
One sequence that graphically underscores the way class prejudice stands between Joe and Susan takes place at a formal banquet that Joe attends, even though he knows he will be out of place there. He boldly walks up to the table where Susan, her boy friend, her parents, and some of their powerful friends are sitting and introduces himself. Here he is treated with cold formality and condescension. As soon as he speaks, the jarring contrast between his working-class regional accent and the educated, received speech of those seated at the table is apparent. They don't invite him to sit but keep him standing as they interrogate him about his connections to the upper-class residents of the town where he grew up. As they are well aware, he knows none of these people. The intent of their conversation is to politely humiliate Joe by reminding him of his position on the social scale.
In another powerful sequence, Joe travels to the town where he grew up when he unexpectedly receives a job offer from the owner of the factory where his father worked, and we get a vivid picture of Joe's origins. There he stays with the aunt and uncle he lived with after his parents were killed in an air raid. These are resolutely working-class people who unquestioningly accept their social position and urge Joe not to set his sights too high. Their small terraced house is a depressing place, with its drab, stained walls and few pieces of cheap furniture. The town itself is another gloomy landscape of factories and mills. When Joe finds that the job offer is the result of Susan's father using his connections to try to separate Joe and his daughter—another example of the power of the Old Boy Network—he turns down the job and returns to Warnley.
One of the places Joe pursues Susan to is the local amateur dramatic society, where he believes he stands a good chance of getting her alone. It is at a rehearsal there that he meets an unhappily married older woman, Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret), and before long begins an affair with her. Alice and Joe slowly develop the kind of intimate emotional connection he could never have with the sweet but immature and inexperienced Susan. Alice becomes Joe's confidante and soon becomes aware of his nearly obsessive ambition and his desire to use Susan as the means of fulfilling it. She recognizes that the source of his obsession is class insecurity and advises him several times just to "be yourself."
The movie's attitude towards sex is surprisingly adult for the time and made the movie a subject of controversy when it was released. Joe and Alice regularly meet in her friend's flat for trysts. And Joe finally manages to seduce Susan in a memorably staged and filmed sequence at a boathouse by the river, after which Susan is all girlish enthusiasm while Joe seems to experience a major letdown after finally getting what he has been after for so long. Joe's emotions are now in turmoil. Both Susan and Alice are in love with him, but the fact that he is more drawn to Alice's maturity and her understanding of his emotional needs makes it look for a while as though he will abandon his scheme to marry Susan.
Two circumstances intervene to resolve his conflict. Alice's husband, a philandering businessman, refuses to divorce her (the divorce laws in Britain were at the time quite draconian), threatening to impoverish Alice and ruin Joe's career. Then when it turns out that Susan is pregnant, her father proposes that Joe marry her and accept a sinecure in his company, granting Joe everything he has been scheming for just as he has finally begun questioning whether he really wants it after all. Forced to choose between the two women, he reverts to his original values and makes the practical decision, choosing Susan and sacrificing Alice, with tragic results.
Harvey gives the performance of his career, and Signoret (who won an Oscar, surprisingly, over Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story) is magnificent as the sensitive, disillusioned older woman who still craves love. She is a version of Camille updated to the post-war world of materialism—she must accept rejection by her young lover so that he can chase his dreams of economic betterment—and Signoret's deeply moving balance of hope and resignation gives the movie its emotional center without pushing it into soap territory.
The black-and-white cinematography by Freddie Francis (winner of two Oscars and later director of many cheesy horror movies) is first-rate, capturing in crisp light-and-shadow the bleak factory towns and dingy interiors of the pubs, flats, and houses where much of the movie takes place. Between 1956 and 1999 he photographed some of the best-looking British and American movies of the time, including three for David Lynch. (Remember the black-and-white Gustave Doré-like look of The Elephant Man?). Just check out his credits on IMDb and be amazed at the visually striking movies he photographed. One especially memorable scene in Room at the Top occurs when Joe finally manages to get Susan alone for the first time, and in a very long take the camera follows him as he prowls through the local library pursuing her through and around the stacks.
The elegant direction of Jack Clayton is also first-rate. This was one of his earliest movies, and although his later career was uneven, he did go on to direct some excellent movies, including The Innocents (1961) and The Pumpkin Eater (1964). The performances of Deborah Kerr in the former (my favorite Kerr performance) and Anne Bancroft in the latter, along with Maggie Smith's performances in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1986) and the TV mini-series Memento Mori (1992), and Simone Signoret's in this movie should affirm his reputation as a superior director of actresses. And considering the authors of the source material of his best work—Henry James, Penelope Mortimer, Brian Moore, and Muriel Spark—he should be regarded as a notable literary interpreter. He has been criticized by Andrew Sarris as an impersonal director, but I'm not convinced that a director with a more distinctive style would have been as effective as Clayton with actresses of that caliber or as an adaptor of works by writers of that caliber.
If its style has less innovation and panache than the key films of the British New Wave of the early 1960's, Room at the Top—with its depiction of life in a dismal post-war English industrial town dominated by class divisions and conflicts—clearly presages those films. With its realistic probing of social and sexual issues, and its thoughtful exploration of materialism and status-worship in opposition to more humanistic values, it's an outstanding movie in its own right.