Vintage Movies: “Room At The Top”

MAGNET contributing editor Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 100 titles—from the ’30s through the ’70s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every Friday.

Room At The Top (1959, 115 minutes)

Ray Davies, the most creative songwriter produced by the British Invasion of the mid-’60s, admits he was once a fan of the loose-knit English literary movement known as the “angry young men.” In an inspired couplet from his 1973 Kinks song “Where Are They Now?” Davies expresses hope that “Jimmy Porter’s learned to laugh and smile/And Joe Lampton’s learned to live a life of style.”

Porter was a furious wife-abuser in John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back In Anger, portrayed on the big screen in 1959 by a strapping, young Richard Burton. Lampton was a young man on the make, determined to rise above his working-class roots in John Braine’s 1957 novel Room At The Top. The lean-and-hungry, Jack Clayton-directed 1959 film version features the unflappable Laurence Harvey as Lampton, newly arrived in the fictional Yorkshire town of Warnley to begin work as a civil-service accountant.

As Lampton ogles Susan Brown (Heather Sears) from an office window, co-worker Charles Soames (Donald Houston) warns him against undressing women in the streets. “Is that what you really want, the girl with a Riviera tan? She lives on ‘the top,’ where the money is,” he explains, pointing toward a posh estate on a distant hill. Cool as a pint of best bitter, Lampton replies, “That’s what I’m going to have.”

To get closer to Susan, Lampton enrolls in a local theater group where she’s a member. With uncommon good looks, he’s cast as the leading man in the company’s new production, opposite a woman 10 years his senior, Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret, who won the best-actress Oscar for her heartwrenching performance). During rehearsal, Joe stumbles over a line, “The only sign of light was the watchman sitting by his brassiere” (instead of “brazier”), which elicits a hearty guffaw at the back of the theater from Jack Wales (John Westbrook), Susan’s upper-crust fiancée. Wales, a former R.A.F. squadron leader, interrupts Lampton as he’s describing his wartime capture. “You must tell me about your P.O.W. experiences, sergeant, but some other time,” Wales smirks as he whisks Susan away in his expensive new roadster.

With Susan temporarily out of the picture, Lampton begins a torrid love affair with Alice, whose husband is both abusive and a womanizer. That doesn’t dampen Joe’s desire for Susan, equally matched by his hatred for Wales. “They make me mad,” he rages, “the boys with the big mouths with silver spoons stuck in them.”

During a cozy encounter on an abandoned mattress in a deserted boathouse, Susan tells Joe that his hands are “like warm muffins.” With a light breakfast under his belt, Lampton is now hungry for the full, four-course dinner. What Charles once mockingly described as “the clerk’s dream” is about to become reality.