Tonight’s Saturday night cinema classic feature is Room at the Top (1959) starring Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret. Full disclosure: I adore Harvey and will watch anything that he’s in.
This is one of the most important films in the history of British cinema, and the best acting Harvey ever did — “in this fine examination of naked ambition, wrong choices and the price paid for them.” The intriguing and supremely talented Simone Signoret won an Academy award for her beautiful performance.
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Ruthless young working-class Englishman Laurence Harvey takes a job in a North Country village controlled by millionaire Donald Wolfit. Harvey resents Wolfit’s class consciousness and vows to rise to the top by wooing the millionaire’s daughter, Heather Sears. Meanwhile he has an affair with Frenchwoman Simone Signoret. .
THE cynical, disenchanted and footloose post-war youths of England, who justifiably have been termed “angry,” never have been put into sharper focus than in “Room at the Top.” The British-made import, which was unveiled at the Fine Arts Theatre yesterday, glaringly spotlights them in a disk of illumination that reveals genuine drama and passion, truth as well as corruption. Although it takes place 3,000 miles away, it is as close to home as a shattered dream, a broken love affair or a man seeking to make life more rewarding in an uneasy world.
Unlike John Osborne, who, in “Look Back in Anger,” merely shouted the sensitive younger Britishers’ fiery protests against class distinctions and other contemporary English inequities, John Braine, out of whose brilliant first novel this careful dissection was made, is more adult and scientifically observant about a grievous malaise. Mr. Braine, Neil Paterson, the scenarist, and Jack Clayton, who did a superb job in directing an excitingly effective cast, are angry, too. But they see the picture whole. They are basically moral people who know that, come what may, a price must be paid for revolt sometimes.
As has been noted, Mr. Braine is concerned with a type of schemer, whose accent may be exotic but one who is becoming more and more symbolic of the restless young men of the world. In this case, he is Joe Lampton, born to poverty in a North Country manufacturing town but determined to catapult himself out of a world he never made or wanted. As a civil servant in another city, he meets the nubile and naive daughter of the richest tycoon who represents the prize and escape he has been waiting for. But this is a consummation not easily achieved. And, when thrown into the orbit of a married woman, ill-used, worldly wise, anxiously groping for real affection, it is fairly obvious that he will succumb first to lust and then to genuine love.
That this dual affair is doomed to tragedy is inevitable. But the artisans who fashioned this shaky triangle are neither crude nor insensitive. Joe is a calculating, shrewd and realistic campaigner, yearning for wealth and the opportunity to rid himself of low-caste stigma through marriage with the heiress to a great fortune. He is, however, also pictured as a man in whom all conscience has not been killed. He is a hero without medals and one mourning defeat when he should be enjoying victory.
The director and scenarist also have shown us a multidimensional figure in the married woman he is forced to reject, a deed that indelibly underlines the sadness, desperation and tragedy that surrounds these truly ill-fated lovers. And they have done equally well by the rich, sheltered young girl he marries at long last, an untutored youngster wholly engulfed by the sweetness, wonder and uneasiness of first love and sex.
ROOM AT THE TOP; screen play by Neil Paterson; from the novel by John Braine; directed by Jack Clayton; produced by John and James Woolf; a Romulus Production released by Continental Distributing, Inc. At the Fine Arts, Fifty-eighth Street, west of Lexington Avenue. Running time: 115 minutes.
Joe Lampton . . . . . Laurence Harvey
Alice Aisgill . . . . . Simone Signoret
Susan Brown . . . . . Heather Sears
Mr. Brown . . . . . Sir Donald Wolfit
Mrs. Brown . . . . . Ambrosine Philpotts
Charles Soames . . . . . Donald Houston
Mr. Hoylake . . . . . Raymond Huntley
Jack Wales . . . . . John Westbrook
George Aisgill . . . . . Allan Cuthbertson
June Samson . . . . . Mary Peach
Elspeth . . . . . Hermione Baddeley
Miss Gilchrist . . . . . Avril Elgar
Aunt . . . . . Beatrice Varley
Darnley . . . . . Stephen Jack
Mayor . . . . . John Welsh
Mayoress . . . . . Everley Gregg
Mavis . . . . . April Olrich
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