Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy was adapted into a 1951 hit movie called A Place in the Sun directed by George Stevens and starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. The tale of a young man trying to rise from the working class to wealth in both his career and his romantic aspirations was hailed by Charlie Chaplin as “The greatest movie ever made about America”. Yet these sorts of stories are hardly culturally bound, as demonstrated by the groundbreaking 1959 British film Room at the Top.
Neil Paterson’s brilliant, Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation of John Braine’s novel tells the story of working class striver Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey, in a star-making performance). Joe is from such a small, depressing Yorkshire town that moving to the mid-sized Yorkshire city of Warnley (think Bradford, where some exteriors were filmed) feels to him like arriving in cosmopolitan heaven. He works as a humble civil servant, but immediately announces that he intends to woo the lovely, upscale, Susan Brown (Heather Sears), daughter of the richest factory owner in town. Despite the objections of her snobbish parents (Ambrosine Phillpotts and Donald Wolfit) and a romantic rival (John Westbrook, who makes a very effective condescending bastard), Susan takes a shine to Joe, even though he’s N.O.C. But strangely, Joe finds himself more drawn to Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret), an older woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a philandering upper-class heel (All Cuthbertson). Sensual desires, painful choices, human ugliness, and class conflict ensue.
A remarkable achievement for first time director Jack Clayton (his next film was another of my recommendations, The Innocents), Room at the Top kicked off the “angry young man” cycle of films that were central to the British New Wave. Signoret instantiates in increased French influence on British cinema in this era, including in the frank portrayal of sex, which at the time earned this film an X rating. Because of its gritty working class settings (strikingly photographed by Freddie Francis), and its blue collar resentments, this film is sometimes said to have kicked off “kitchen sink” drama, but if you have seen my review of It Always Rains on Sunday, you know that tradition was present in British film already.
There are many good performances in the movie, but Simone Signoret towers over all with her Academy Award-winning turn as a woman who met Joe just a bit too late. She was only 7 years older than Harvey, but she was made up to look older (how many famous actresses would have been scared to do this?) and in her attitude, tone, and presence, she makes the audience believe she is the sadder and wiser woman to love and to guide the immature, un-self-aware Joe. The two of them have palpable screen chemistry, both sexually and romantically, which is precisely what gives this shattering story of love versus material ambition so much power.