Room at the Top (1959)

Room at the Top (1959)

“Don’t hurt her, Joe; don’t ever hurt her.”

A socially aspiring young man (Laurence Harvey) from a lower-class town arrives at his new job eager to woo the pretty daughter (Heather Sears) of his boss (Donald Wolfit), whose wife (Ambrosine Phillpotts) is dead-set against her daughter dating anyone outside of her social sphere. Meanwhile, Joe (Harvey) begins a romance with an older woman (Simone Signoret) whose philandering husband (Allan Cuthbertson) keeps her locked in a loveless marriage — but will Joe’s desire for wealth and status outweigh his love for Alice (Signoret)?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Class Relations
  • Jack Clayton Films
  • Laurence Harvey Films
  • May-December Romance
  • Simone Signoret Films
  • Social Climbers

Jack Clayton’s feature debut was this adaptation of John Braine’s novel about — as Peary writes in his Alternate Oscars — “an unhappily married middle-aged woman who has an affair with an angry young social climber.” Indeed this “depressing” movie tackles challenging situations and characters head-on, introducing us right away to a head-turning young man who doesn’t hesitate to directly outline his aspirational goals to his friendly new co-worker (Donald Houston):

While Peary doesn’t review Room at the Top in his GFTFF, he briefly discusses Signoret’s Oscar-winning performance in Alternate Oscars, where he points out that “Signoret, a French actress in a British film, became the first actress in a non-American film to win the Best Actress Oscar.” He adds: “As had been the case in her European films, Signoret was impeccable, giving one of her typically strong, moving, honest portrayals. Significantly, American viewers were taken with a rare movie female who is forty and slightly overweight yet is extremely sensual… ” He asserts that while “Signoret’s part wasn’t really substantial” (I disagree), she “was impressive enough to have warranted the Best Actress Oscar… had it not been for Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot” (who he gives the award to instead).

I’m in agreement with Peary’s assessment of Signoret’s compelling performance, which is both heart-breaking and nuanced. This former war-bride (who surely only ended up with Cuthbertson due to lack of other options) is in an undeniable pickle, and we understand her despair when things don’t work out with Harvey as hoped.

Meanwhile, Harvey’s character gradually shows more depth as well: while we despise his naked ambitions, we come to realize that he does feel things deeply, and has a conscience lurking just beneath the surface of his calculating demeanor.

This film doesn’t present any easy solutions to the dilemmas it poses, but its honest portrayal of class relations and thwarted romance make it well worth a one-time look (even if it may be too depressing for repeat visits).

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Simone Signoret as Alice
  • Laurence Harvey as Joe Lampton
  • Fine supporting performances
  • Freddie Francis’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful if sobering classic. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


  • Genuine Classic
  • Noteworthy Performance(s)
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee


One thought on “Room at the Top (1959)

  1. A once-must, mainly for Signoret’s performance. As per my 5/19/20 post in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb):

    “I asked you about the girl and… all you tell me is about her father and his brass. Joe, you wouldn’t sell yourself for a handful of silver.”

    ‘Room at the Top’ (1959): Director Jack Clayton made 7 feature films – and is perhaps best known for his stunning ghost story ‘The Innocents’ and its unforgettable portrait of gothic horror. All of Clayton’s films are dark – and horror can, of course, more often involve live people rather than ghosts.

    Take this film, for example. the story of an opportunist battling class division – while simultaneously being a tale of the horror of ‘love’. Yet, watching it again after many years, I was mainly seeing it as a film about manipulation in its various forms.

    Yes, Laurence Harvey plays an operator – but several of the men in this film match him step-by-step. As well, though the treatment of women throughout is generally awful, even a few of the women are shown as conniving. (It becomes refreshing when we witness, in brief moments, the normal relationship that exists between Harvey’s closest male pal and his girlfriend.)

    The film is at its best in its last half-hour. Prior to that we are watching a sort of redux of ‘A Place in the Sun’ – and are forced to listen to a lot of icky gook about ‘love’ (from Heather Sears’ rich girl character). But there’s something very poignant in what Simone Signoret finally hits Harvey with: “You’re a timid soul, aren’t you? .. .You just had to be yourself. That was all. With me you were yourself. Only with me.”

    Oscars went to the screenplay and Signoret (who also won at Cannes and BAFTA).

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