A brash working-class bloke gets a new job in a new town, wages a calculated campaign to seduce and marry the local tycoon’s daughter, entangles himself in a passionate affair with an older woman, and finally gets what he wants — with nearly everyone living unhappily ever after.
On the 60th anniversary of “Room at the Top,” it’s worthwhile to recall how and why this British movie shocked and excited its original audiences. A first feature by Jack Clayton from a best-selling debut novel by John Braine, it opens for a week at Film Forum in a 4K restoration that puts a new sheen on master cinematographer Freddie Francis’s grimy black-and-white images.
Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey), the film’s antihero, is a ferocious go-getter from a humble background who takes a job in a North England town controlled by the local industrialist. Single-minded and predatory, he sets his sights on the naïve heiress Susan Brown (Heather Sears), while recklessly pursuing the worldly wise but unhappily married Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret). The heat generated by the affair fuels the movie.
Joe’s bluntly articulated class resentment notwithstanding, “Room at the Top” is quite conservative in its morality — although its sledgehammer ending still packs an emotional wallop. The movie was popular with British audiences but, as noted by the film historian Alexander Walker, many reviewers were offended by its explicit dialogue and situations. There would seem to be a political subtext as well. Given that Joe was a sergeant in the R.A.F. during World War II and supposedly in his mid-20s (making Alice a shockingly old 35), the movie appears to be set around 1950 — a period when Britain’s postwar Labour government put the nation’s old boy network on the defensive.