Classic Film of the Week #19: Room at the Top (1959)

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We all have dreams, ideas about what we want our futures to be like. This is a good thing: dreams give us motivation, something to strive for. But in the end, they're just products of our own minds, little fantasies we've conjured up. Real life is quite a bit different, sometimes for the worse, but sometimes for the better--the surprises that come with living can sometimes lead to much better things than we ever could have imagined for ourselves. But if we push these unexpected gifts away, keep clinging to those images we've created for ourselves, we might find all of the happiness life has to offer us slipping right through our fingers. This is the conundrum facing Laurence Harvey's Joe Lampton in the magnificent Room at the Top.

Laurence Harvey first wowed me with his disconcerting, emotionless performance in The Manchurian Candidate, and he is equally impressive here--this role is much more human, but he still has this fascinating alien quality about him, as if he's simply not capable of feeling emotions as deeply as the people around him. From the film's description, I was expecting the lead character to be your typical womanizing cad, but the film doesn't let you write off Joe Lampton quite so easily--certainly he has a misogynistic streak, and he is incredibly selfish, but he's also an orphan who lost both his parents in an air raid and was captured by the enemy right after joining the army, spending the remainder of the war as a POW. He's a man with a lot of emotional baggage, and marrying his way into the upper-class is how he's chosen to channel it, in the hopes that money can ease his pain. Further, in the beginning he doesn't actually intend to hurt anyone in his climb to the "room at the top": he is initially very attracted to Heather Sears' Susan Brown, daughter of the richest man in town, and it's hard not to sympathize with him when his legitimate attempts to go out with her are struck down only because he's not rich enough to suit her parents' tastes.

There are many films that examine and criticize Britain's class system, but this one still manages to be hard-hitting in several key scenes. A particularly brutal one sees Joe approach Susan and her friends and family at a restaurant, and they try to make him feel welcome by asking about people they know from his hometown, but he can only respond that he doesn't know those people--at least not personally. From his social position, knowing those people would be as likely as maintaining a personal friendship with the kind and queen. When he expresses this, their interest in him vanishes and they politely, but firmly, make it clear that he doesn't belong at their table. While Joe is not without personal flaws, these roadblocks preventing him even from going on a date with a girl outside of his class makes his desperate bid to get to the top a lot more understandable--anyone would get sick and tired of leading a life where you're constantly treated as "lesser".

An interesting dynamic of the film is that while Susan's parents are vehemently opposed to her going out with Joe, it is suggested that Susan's own father was from a lower-class and her mother defied her own parents to marry him. And so, when a lower-class man does manage to infiltrate the higher ranks, he fights to make sure no others can join him--an example of how indefensibly ruthless this system is. This also serves as a rather dark prophecy for Susan: we can look at her and say she's young, from a new generation that doesn't have to abide by the same rules as the previous one, or that she's kind and has a more open heart than her parents, but in truth she's probably no different than her mother was at the same age. Eventually, society will surely corrupt her in the same ways. But, in the moment, her parents are the enemy and she's the one holding the white flag--she's charmed by Joe and willing to take the consequences of being with him. Everything is coming together; and then comes Alice.

I watched this film as part of Simone Signoret's Summer Under the Stars day on TCM. It was the first film I've seen from Signoret, and from the first moment she appeared on screen I was hooked. I was captivated by her for the rest of the movie: she has such a strong presence in her scenes that even Harvey can't compete with. She's an actress that makes you shut up and take notice, not because she's bold or loud, but instead because she's so quiet and subtle. You pay attention because you're scared of missing even a single word, a single glance of her haunting eyes. She won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance, and while she was up against some pretty stiff competition--Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story, which I believe to be her best performance, and Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer, a film I admittedly have yet to see--I think the judges made the right call. This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of performance, and one that deserved to be recognized as such.

Signoret's Alice is indeed quite unlike most "cougar" characters you've seen in film: she's not predatory or even seductive in her relationship with the younger Joe. She's a strong woman, so strong that she's not afraid to be vulnerable or admit how broken she is from her deeply unsatisfying life, complete with a husband who is the real womanizing cad of the film. Her romance with Joe provides the film its emotional core, a connection between two damaged people that is deeply and achingly felt. Her chemistry with Harvey is rock-solid and makes his inner conflict between what he has and what he's always dreamed of all the more unbearable. The look on his face in the final scene of the film says it all: it's a brutal, yet perfect conclusion to this bleak, heartbreaking story.

Room at the Top comes highly recommended.

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