Room at the Top (1959, Jack Clayton)
This is one dark movie, an adaptation of the celebrated John Braine novel that’s a cornerstone of postwar British literature, and an extremely — winningly — odd choice to have become an Academy favorite. Its coy pessimism disguises a human story of surprising depth. Initially it feels like Repulsion without the bite, following a shallow up-from-the-grassroots Laurence Harvey looking as stoic and sinister as ever, going on and on with his new work pals about all the “birds” they see and the economic viability of their T&A. It’s totally creepy, but it turns out that’s kind of the point.
Around this time, Harvey had turned down a role in the Hitchcock film No Bail for the Judge, which ended up never being made; this is interesting because like his proposed costar in that film, Audrey Hepburn, Harvey was a brilliant actor who spent much of his career playing the same role endlessly: a belaguered, cold-hearted snake who ignores a beating heart in order to learn how to smile as he kills. Perhaps the reason Harvey was constantly cast in such parts is that he performs them with such masterly depth; Darling and The Manchurian Candidate are celebrated later examples, but here he finds his strongest and most sustained role in the snobbish, dismissive world of Joe Lampton — a world disintegrated by an unexpected injection of tenderness that must then either be surrendered to or destroyed.
That comes in the form of Alice (Simone Signoret, who won a well-deserved Oscar), a confident but vaguely broken woman who begins an extremely passionate and rewarding affair with Joe despite a bit of an age difference, and here his Dreiserian troubles begin as he must choose between fulfilling his personal ambitions in the arms of another woman, Susan (Heather Sears), whose attraction to him is a corporate boon, and becoming a happy partner to his obvious true love. The film — which you can tell is based on a novel by the way it makes a fairly simple and done-to-death plotline into something driven on detail and character — is put on Harvey’s shoulders as much as anyone’s, as it relies entirely upon our belief (a) in his class-obsessed asshole ways, (b) that he can and does fall madly in love with a woman ten years older and has his heart and cold exterior melted, and (c) that this is an actual transformation of a consistent, full-bodied character and not just inconsistent writing.
There’s a lot here that will make viewers think of other movies, from Patterns to A Place in the Sun to Match Point, but it has a leg up in its atypical frankness. Given that this is a film from 1959, the affair between Harvey and Signoret’s characters is surprisingly erotic and believable, and the latter gives a speech about shaming of female sexuality that seems about forty years ahead of its time. The first act is sort of a slog as we pass through all of the traditional chit-chat about climbing up the ladder to success besieged by mockery. But as it becomes clear that this is happening to a complex, flawed but ultimately warm human being — who must discover himself in all this — the tragedy at the center of the film, of compromise and convenience over love, becomes devastating as played out in the eyes, angers and pretend-unfeeling of both Harvey and Signoret.
The former’s last look back at his love, only just successfully choking back tears, would pack sufficient emotional wallop without the grim finale that has one character suddenly killed, which I’m not sure was necessary (though it’s marvelously staged in a devastating scene with overlapping dialogue). It adds a touch of the maudlin to a film that doesn’t need it, especially when its final scene — a grim wedding, more like a funeral, in which Harvey has clearly left his soul far away — is as ironic and sad and damn perfect as they come.