‘Room at the Top’ matures British New Wave

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“Room at the Top,” directed by Jack Clayton, marries melodrama and realism in the paradigm example of the British New Wave. 

The film follows the lust and love driven exploits of Joe Lampton played by Laurence Harvey. During the film, Joe splits his attention between Alice (Simone Signoret), a married woman in a loveless marriage, and Susan (Heather Sears), the wealthy daughter of an industrial magnate. 

Upon its premiere in 1959, the film racked up several accolades. Hermione Baddeley as Elspeth was on-screen only briefly and still managed to nab up a best supporting actress nomination. By doing so, Baddeley’s performance became the shortest ever to be nominated for the award. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards and won for best actress and best adapted screenplay. The film also served as the directorial debut for Clayton, who went on to be a prolific director. 

“Room at the Top” operates within the generic conventions of melodrama, complete with a mangled young woman and an angst-riddled leading man. 

The film embodies the “kitchen sink” realism of the time, focusing in on class with an “angry young man” at its center. Joe is obsessed with money and status, trying desperately to escape his time in the war. His social-climbing ways manifest in a type of transactional misogyny, seeing the women around him as a combination of different values that can either serve or hurt him.

The perfect woman is articulated by a friend of Joe’s — someone with no ties and a nice family business. Long scenes are lent to Joe and his pals digging into the metrics of this system of judging women and giving grades to women. Ultimately, however, it becomes clear that women have far more power over Joe than he would like to think, as he falls deeper and deeper in love with both Susan and Alice. 

“Room at the Top” served as the beginning of a new kind of maturity in British cinema, opening the door for more frank and open discussions of sex in cinema. While no characters in the film are generally likable, the situations of class strangulation in which they find themselves provide the sympathetic heart of the film.

Contact Kate Tinney at [email protected]. Tweet her at @katetinney.