What a brilliant film this is. Simone Signoret steals the film as Alice the aging beauty in an unsatisfying marriage, who despite her natural cynicism falls head over heals for a younger man, Joe Lampton, played by Laurence Harvey in by far his best role & the best acting of his career.
Signore's performance gained her a richly deserved Oscar for Best Actress, so it's a little surprising Room at the Top isn't more famous than it is today. If all it had had going for it had been Signoret's stunning performance, that alone would make Room at the Top essential viewing for one of the sexiest portrayals of middleaged beauty ever captured on film.
The rest of the cast, even if overshadowed by Signore's abject greatness, are across the board masterful in the portraits they create. Harvey in particular projects shocking complexity. He is by turns evil & romantic & pathetic. By the end he has evoked grudging sympathy despite the irreversible harm he has done.
Harvey's Joe is the central figure of the tale, a handsome man from a lower class factory town, capable of great charm, with a singleminded plan to climb the social ladder at whatever cost. With the intent of seducing any rich man's daughter, he settles upon a naive young Susan (Heather Sears, the Emily Watson of her era) who he easily wins over by insincere but persistent declarations of love. Her wealthy parents will do anything to get rid of this lower class suitor, but never counted on their daughter falling so far from grace as to become pregnant.
The lustiness of this elegant black & white British film is surprising for 1959, the general amorality more sensual than anything pre-Code, & harder-edged than often seen even today. Indeed, the British Board of Film Classification gave it an X rating that very nearly sabotaged its chances of ever being seen, until one distributor took a chance & ended up with a commercial as well as an artistic success. Not until Midnight Cowboy was another X rated film so wholeheartedly embraced both by critics & the mainstream viewing public.
Moral wise it boils down to "be careful what you wish for, you might get it." The selfish Joe with a chip on his shoulder against the "haves" of the world finally penetrates the upper class realizing too late he most loved Alice after all, for whom he will carry both a torch & a burden of guilt for the rest of his life. The relentless misery of the tale makes for some damned serious cinema viewing, & it's possible the film is not today more widely viewed merely because it is the opposite of uplifting. Yet it is not often that cinema rises to the level of art, & Room at the Top is of that rarest type.
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