Room at the Top was adapted from John Braine’s first novel, about an ambitious young man in a local government office in a large and bleak northern town who makes a set for a wealthy industrialist’s daughter, and – when thwarted – turns to an older married woman.
Eventually, he is forced into marriage with the girl, the older woman meeting her death after a drinking orgy.
The character of Joe Lampton is ambivalent, bitter, his social animus perhaps deriving from a slum childhood and a war spent mostly in a prison camp, but driven forward by a kind of confident, day-dreaming quality, a refusal to admit the impossible.
His eventual translation from the cobblestones of the lower end of the town to the Tudor gables at the top is meant to show his sublimation of life’s values to ambition.
He has destroyed one life and knowingly goes into a loveless marriage accompanied by the material comforts for which he has always hankered. It is, in his terms, not a bad jail sentence.
In retrospect, Braine’s book is hardly as startling as it may have seemed at the time. The stance is a traditional, stolid one of disapproval.
In the film, the tight-lipped and rather frigid performance of Laurence Harvey does not explain the character’s motivation. Donald Wolfit, as the industrialist, delivers an impressively theatrical portrait of a nineteenth-century mill-owner, although the performance hardly fits this particular film.
Simone Signoret, as the older woman, is not too happily cast, either, volatile Gallic temperament not mixing well with Yorkshire reticence.
But the critics’ admiration was mainly on account of the love scenes between Harvey and Heather Sears; at last someone in a British film actually admitted that the sex act was enjoyable and for the first time such dialogue was passed by the British Board of Film Censors.
What seemed startling in 1959 had later become banal, but Room at the Top was at least a turning point in this sense.