Classic Movie Blog - Room at the Top

Simone Signoret’s Oscar Winning Performance

Classic Movie Blog - Room at the Top
Simone Signoret and Laurence Harvey (Source: Rumulus films)

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Classic Movie Blog – Room at the Top

Part of the British New Wave, “kitchen sink” drama movement of the late 1950’s early 1960’s – Room at the Top directed by Jack Clayton and written for the screen by Neal Paterson (adapted from the novel by John Braine) was nominated for six Oscars. This is astonishing, considering it was an all British Production and it dealt frankly with themes of sex, ambition and Britain’s unpleasant class system. Paterson won, as well as did Simone Signoret for her luminous, earthy portrayal of Alice Aisgill. Signoret is simply brilliant. She is vivid without being showy. The performance seems incredibly modern, even though the film (1959) is over 60 years old.

Set in post war England (1948 or 1949) Laurence Harvey plays Joe Lampton a bright, but lowly accountant who works for town/city of Warnley (a fictional affluent small city in Yorkshire). He is very good looking and even more ambitious. Embittered by his lot in life and empowered by the idea that anyone can get ahead and rich if they work hard enough, Joe has huge aspirations to become a member of the upper-class; a group of people he both envies and despises. His colleagues think he is deluded and just want him to enjoy life with the lot he was given.

Joe’s quest is externalized in his amorous pursuit of the wealthy, beautiful daughter, Susan (Heather Sears) of the town’s most important citizen, factory owner, Mr. Brown (Donald Wolfit). Susan’s parents naturally want Joe to stay away from their daughter, and things get even more complicated when Joe falls genuinely in love with Alice, while trying to move up the social ladder with Susan.

This is perhaps Harvey’s best performance. He often played cads and villains onscreen, capitalizing on his sinuous looks and natural aloofness. But here, his yearning and inner conflict add dimension and empathy to a character of dubious morality. Pairing him with the genuine, totally credible Signoret helps; if she can see the good in Joe and if we believe she can love him –and we do-then there must be something redeemable inside him.

I hadn’t seen this movie in over twenty years, but remembering loving it the first time I saw it. I suspect that twenty years ago, when I was young and cynical, its bleakness and honesty appealed to me-but it still holds up. NO spoilers, but it is completely uncompromising and its ending is stunning. Even more impressive is Signoret’s perfect performance, which hasn’t aged at all. You know she must be great: a French actress not well known in Hollywood beats out Hollywood favorites: Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Day.

This film is sharp and has edges.

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