Room at the Top is a 1959 British film based on the novel of the same name by John Braine. The novel was adapted by Neil Paterson with uncredited work by Mordecai Richler. It was directed by Jack Clayton. Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1959) was the film that launched the Kitchen Sink cinema movement and one of the movement’s best examples.
Kitchen Sink Cinema: The film helped launch a movement in British cinema that has been variably labeled the British New Wave, “Kitchen Sink Cinema,” “Angry Young Men Films” or “Social Problem Films.” It was short-lived, lasting mainly from 1958 to 1963. Hallmark of films belonging to this movement featured grim social realism, frank coarse working-class vocabulary, angry, alienated heroes, details of everyday living, and gritty, grainy cinematography. Other directors closely associated with the movement were Tony Richardson (A Taste of Honey-1961), Lindsay Anderson (If-1969), Karel Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning-1960), and John Schlesinger (Billy Liar– 1963).
Relevance of this movie goes beyond the social conditions of post-war Britain to which the story geographically is rooted. The hero is a latterday version of Julian Sorel of The Red And The Black, a book by Stendhal. War always throws up such social problems of class and privileges enjoyed by a few. As in the post Napoleonic period, Room at the Top has similar problems to deal with. The hero the film Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey), comes from a working class background. Having given his life for the country during the War, he finds himself stymied by the privileged class still resisting changes. For instance Jack Wales, who persists in calling Joe “Sergeant,” pointedly makes him know his place. How Susan’s parents hold their noses up whenever he comes in their sight also is a clue to the mentality of the upperclass who learnt nothing from the War. There was something obscene in the way this class reverted to their old ways as though the precious lives (from the lower class) shed for the country weren’t worth anything. Besides the film being a social and psychological drama it charts the progress of the protagonist who is determined to take his due come what may. The truth is that Joe is proud of himself, not of his class origin. “I’m working class and proud despite it.” He is a social climber in essence though he is only interested in himself. Near the end of the film, Joe stops in at a working class bar in his old neighborhood and is ironically mistaken for one of the snobby rich folks, illustrating how far along he already is in his transformation.
The film is set in Yorkshire in the early 1950s.
It tells the story of a Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey), an ambitious young man who has just moved in Warnley to take up a secure but poorly paid post in the Borough Treasurer’s Department. Determined to succeed and ignoring the warnings of a colleague, Soames (Donald Houston), he is drawn to Susan Brown (Heather Sears), daughter of the local industrial magnate, Mr. Brown (Donald Wolfit). Brown deals with the situation by sending Susan abroad, and Joe turns for solace to an older, unhappily married woman, Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret), who falls in love with him. On return from her holiday shortly, she is seduced by Joe who had a quarrel with Alice. Having made Susan pregnant he goes back to Alice. Now Brown has a recourse either to buy Joe off or make him marry his daughter. Joes chooses the latter and deserts Alice. Abandoned and heartbroken, Alice takes to drinks that results in her death in a car accident. Joe disappears, and after being beaten unconscious by a gang of toughs for making a drunken pass at a girl, he is rescued by Soames in time for his wedding.
Background And Production
Room at the Top was filmed at Shepperton Studios in London, with extensive location work in Halifax, Yorkshire, which stood in for the fictional towns of Warnley and Dufton.
Vivien Leigh was originally offered the part of Alice, which eventually went to Simone Signoret.
The film was critically acclaimed and marked the beginning of Jack Clayton’s career as an important director.
Room at the Top was followed by a sequel in 1965 called Life at the Top.
Directed by Jack Clayton
Produced by James Woolf
Written by Neil Paterson
Mordecai Richler (uncredited)
Music by Mario Nascimbene
Cinematography Freddie Francis
Editing by Ralph Kemplen
Distributed by British Lion Films
Running time 115 min.
* Laurence Harvey – Joe Lampton
* Simone Signoret – Alice Aisgill
* Heather Sears – Susan Brown
* Donald Wolfit – Mr. Brown
* Donald Houston – Charlie Soames
* Ambrosine Phillpotts – Mrs. Brown
* Hermione Baddeley – Elspeth
* Raymond Huntley – Mr. Hoylake
* John Westbrook – Jack Wales
* Allan Cuthbertson – George Aisgill
* Mary Peach – June Samson
* Thelma Ruby – Miss Breith
* Anne Leon – Janet
* Wendy Craig – Joan
* Best Actress in a Leading Role (Simone Signoret)
* Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.
* Best Picture
* Best Actor in a Leading Role, (Laurence Harvey)
* Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Hermione Baddeley)
* Best Director (Jack Clayton)
Signoret’s Oscar win as Best Actress was the first time that a French cinema actress had won that award.
* Best British Film
* Best Film from any Source
* BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Simone Signoret)
* Best British Actor (Laurence Harvey)
* Best British Actor (Donald Wolfit)
* Best British Actress (Hermione Baddeley)
* Most Promising Newcomer (Mary Peach)
Golden Globe Awards
* Samuel Goldwyn Award
* Best Motion Picture Actress – Drama (Simone Signoret)
Cannes Film Festival
* Best Actress (Simone Signoret)
* With her Oscar win, Simone Signoret became the second French actress to win the Academy Award (Claudette Colbert was the first in 1934).
* Initially no British cinema chains wanted to touch the film as the British Board of Film Classification had given it an X certificate, then usually synonymous with exploitation fare. Eventually the ABC chain took a chance and picked it up for distribution, scoring a huge critical and commercial hit in the process.
* Before passing the film uncut the BBFC demanded, and successfully received, the alteration of the word “bitch” to “witch” and the deletion of the line “She was scalped” to the description of Alice’s death in the car crash.
* First film of Ian Hendry.
• Features the first open reference to the sex act in a British film.