Room at the Top is a British melodrama from 1959, and one I thoroughly enjoyed, even if it did cram in a bit too many melodramatic moments. Then again, that comes with the territory. It reasonably well acted and shot, and apparently was the first of the British New Wave of realistic films (according to wikipedia). I didn’t even know the British had a New Wave, so that’s interesting.
“Room at the Top” refers to the main character Joe Lampton’s (Laurence Harvey) social aspirations. In the English town of Warnley, “the top” is the fashionable upscale part of town, and where Joe, from the neighboring low class town of Dufton, wants to live someday. He immediately goes to work, trying to get the richest young woman in town, Susan Brown (Heather Sears) to fall in love with him. He continues to be bothered by class distinctions, but doesn’t let them get him down, and actually manages to have Susan fall for him. However, in the meantime he starts having an affair with a French woman who’s already married and ten years his senior, Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret). To his surprise, the both fall in love, and now he has to choose between love and his social climbing.
Okay, if that’s not a melodrama, I don’t know what is. For fans of the genre, this is a great example because it’s not as schmaltzy as some of them, yet still has all the outrageous plot twists and heart tearing decisions for the characters. About halfway through, you think the story can’t possibly get more melodramatic than it already has, and then it does! The only problem with this is that some of Joe’s decisions especially don’t make a hell of a lot of sense. The film adequately establishes his desire to move up in society despite his lower class upbringing, it also establishes his disregard for women, as he continually thinks of them as prizes or things that only benefit him instead of having actual needs like actual human beings, but it doesn’t do as well establishing his moral code. He first breaks up with Alice over hearing that she posed nude for a painter in college, didn’t sleep with him, but it bothers Joe anyway. This was only touched on in the scene itself, where he assaults Alice after she tells him she did this. I found this a bit unbelievable, because Joe doesn’t seem to care that Alice has a husband but he does care that some random guy painted her nude in college? Okay Joe, you make sense.
So while Joe for the most part is a misogynist jerk, at least the film calls him out on it repeatedly. That’s why the ending is so horrible. Without giving it away, let’s just say the females in the story end up letting Joe and his crap get to them, and it’s sad to see because until that point you thought they, especially Alice, were tough enough to stand Joe and his awfulness. Unfortunately, that doesn’t end up being the case, but at least you see enough of the good side of Joe to somewhat understand it. Still, the ending is pretty disheartening, and dare I say it, maybe unbelievable?
Visually the film is pretty strong. Clayton makes good use of deep focus photography to make certain shots stand out. Combined with the black and white it had me thinking of The Children’s Hour which was shot in a similar sort of way. The deep focus is definitely there to draw attention to itself, as the characters faces stand way out, far more than they would otherwise. The ending is especially dark, almost to the point of being a noir, though without that specific tone. Clayton also uses the motif of the cigarette pretty well, that and the curtain blowing contributing to the more romantic moments in a classy 1950s black and white sort of way.
I enjoyed Room at the Top, even while finding Joe’s character incredibly frustrating because he could be a good person if he had a mind to. That’s kind of the point of the movie though. The film is stylish but without being terrible ostentatious about it, the deep focus photography and use of shadows keeps things very dramatic. While the characters may not always make 100% sense, the melodrama is still pretty entertaining, even if the ending is disappointing from a female agency standpoint. But hey, it’s pretty good for 1959.
Long story short: 3/4 stars