Room at the Top
ROOM AT THE TOP
Director: Jack Clayton
Production: Romulus Films, Ltd.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 115 minutes. Released 1958, Britain.
Producers: John and James Woolf; screenplay: Neil Paterson, from the novel by John Braine; photography: Freddie Francis; editor: Ralph Kemplen; art director: Ralph Brinton; music: Mario Nascimbene.
Cast: Laurence Harvey (Joe Lampton); Simone Signoret (Alice Aisgill); Heather Sears (Susan Brown); Donald Houston (Charles Soames); Donald Wolfit (Mr. Brown); Hermione Baddeley (Elspeth); John Westbrook (Jack Wales).
Awards: British Academy Awards for Best Film, Best British Film, and Best Foreign Actress (Signoret), 1958; Cannes Film Festival, Best Actress (Signoret), 1959; Oscars for Best Actress (Signoret) and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, 1959.
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From post-war Britain emerged the syndrome of the angry young man, one apparently intent on overthrowing established social conventions and codes of behavior. In the theatre, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger set the pace; in fiction, John Braine's Room at the Top. With Jack Clayton's film of the Braine novel, the syndrome became known internationally to film audiences, its central character, Joe Lampton, becoming the epitome of the restless young Englishman fed up with social traditions that made life forever one situated in the lower or middle class.
In this his feature film debut, Clayton displayed a feeling for atmosphere and character delineation that made this study of social, political and sexual behavior one of the most significant and successful British films of the 1950s. Its failure to receive Code approval in the United States only increased its popularity, confirming the notion that the film-going public was ready for more mature films, films that involved a more realistic portrait of current social and sexual realities.
Having spent three years as a prisoner of war, Joe Lampton decides that he is owed more than slavery for his wartime duties and thus he seeks to break through the rigid provincial social structure of the industrial town of Warnley. Convinced that ability is not the key to advancement, he sets his sights on marriage to Susan Brown, the daughter of a local industrialist and community leader. The more his status-seeking is discouraged, the more actively he pursues his goals, bribery, public embarrassment, and removal of the object of affection all failing to curtail Joe's activities. Almost from the beginning it is clear that Joe's love is not for Susan but for the status she will provide.
Ever the opportunist, Joe takes advantage of the disastrous marital situation of Alice Aisgill, the leading lady of the village theatre group, and before long they are lovers. Alice falls in love; Joe continues to place his priorities on money and status. When Susan returns from her father-induced exile, Joe seduces her, subsequently realizing that while he desires what Susan can provide, his love is for Alice. Joe, however, must pay for his crime. When Susan becomes pregnant, her father attempts to bribe Joe, offering to set him up in business if he agrees never to see Susan again, and, when that fails, forcing him to marry Susan and agree never to see Alice again. Joe now finds himself caught in the web he has constructed, realizing too late that his freedom from social structures is not a function of money and status but of self, that before he can be outwardly free he must be inwardly free. His room at the top may be lined with gold, but the achievement of that position ensures not happiness but misery. The ending of this film is a bitter parody of the conventional happy ending: a two-shot situates the wedding couple, she in her joy, he in his misery, the tightness of the frame depicting the restrictiveness of Joe's new social position.
The success of Room at the Top set in motion a new genre of British cinema, the "kitchen sink drama" with its emphasis on social realism. Over the next five years such strong examples as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life won international acclaim.