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Room at the Top (1958)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Room at the Top (1958)
Directed byJack Clayton
Production CompanyRemus Films
ProducersJohn Woolf
 James Woolf
ScreenplayNeil Paterson
From the novel byJohn Braine
CinematographyFreddie Francis
MusicMario Nascimbene

Cast: Laurence Harvey (Joe Lampton); Simone Signoret (Alice Aisgill); Heather Sears (Susan Brown); Donald Wolfit (Mr Brown); Ambrosine Phillpotts (Mrs Brown)

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An ambitious young working-class man moves to the wealthy town of Warnley to work for the council. He pursues the daughter of the local industrialist, but also falls in love with a married French woman. He finds he has to choose between them.

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Room at the Top, released at the beginning of 1959, was the first of the 'new wave' films. It came from established industry producers, John and James Woolf, and was a huge box-office hit. This success opened up new possibilities for British filmmakers. Audiences had proved they were prepared to see adult storylines, gritty realism and political comment, and so the new wave as a commercial proposition was born. War films and romantic comedies dried up and the provinces and proletariat were suddenly discovered.

As a trailblazer which had a big impact on the British film industry and its audience, Room at the Top has inevitably faced a backlash. After an initial consensus that it was daring and different, a new consensus emerged that it was stolid and indifferent.

Maybe it's time for the backlash against the backlash, for there are many fine things in Room at the Top. It may lack the punch of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (d. Karel Reisz, 1960), the lyricism of A Taste of Honey (d. Tony Richardson, 1962), the humour of Billy Liar (d. John Schlesinger, 1963) or the depth of This Sporting Life (d. Lindsay Anderson, 1963), but it has the virtues of a direct challenge to national complacency and a searing emotional honesty about personal relationships.

No other new wave film takes on the class system as boldly. It offers a complex analysis of class warfare that challenges the accepted state of things in Britain at the time. Joe is proud of his class but, unlike Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night, keen to leave it. The only way to do this is by cold calculation and emotional manipulation.

Britain at all levels is depicted as desperately holding on to class as a means of self-belief. Joe's relatives tell him to stick to his own kind, yet the toughs that beat him up don't see him as of their own class. The rank-pulling of Jack Wales tells him that it is just a different kind of war now.

It takes the outsider figure of Alice, the Frenchwoman, to offer the hope of some redemption. Joe's failure to choose Alice, the woman he loves, over Susan, the agent of social mobility, becomes England's failure as well.

The film may not be stylistically adventurous, with long scenes and conventional editing, but the content bites. Simone Signoret's performance is ferociously good - bringing out all the pain of Alice's situation. On the other hand, Laurence Harvey, as Joe, is often used as a stick to beat the film with. Certainly he is few critics' favourite actor and, being a Lithuanian raised in South Africa, sports a strange Johannesburg-Bradford accent. Yet there is something about his blank, narcissistic presence that works in showing Joe's essential weakness.

Phil Wickham

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Video Clips
1. Alice and Joe (5:22)
2. Drinking to forget (5:02)
Production stills
Publicity materials
Albert Finney: The Guardian Interview (1982)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Darling (1965)
Baddeley, Hermione (1906-86)
Clayton, Jack (1921-1995)
Craig, Wendy (1934-)
Francis, Freddie (1917-2007)
Harvey, Laurence (1927-1973)
Kemplen, Ralph (1912-2004)
British New Wave
The 'Angry Young Men'