Success Is Tragic In Room At The Top

Success Is Tragic In Room At The Top
At the end of World War II, filmmakers began to focus on the war’s effect on the human body, as well as the human spirit. Films like The Best Years of Our Lives explored how time and circumstance challenge our humanity, and how the passage of time changes some people more drastically than others.

Room at the Top takes a different approach. Set in post-war 1947, the film contends that time changes no one. Instead, it amplifies the strongest of human vulnerabilities until the damage is irreparable.

The two main characters, Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) and Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret), are each fighting two different battles; one pitting love against greed, and the other, hope against desperation.

Joe is from a moral, working-class family. While he was interned as a prisoner of war, the enemy dropped one bomb in Joe’s hometown. It landed on the family home, killing his parents.

This tragedy is not the impetus for Joe’s desire to break out of the class to which he was born. Rather, it is a metaphor for the destruction that is about to occur. The rubble that was once his home still conjures happy memories, but those thoughts are associated with who Joe really is, rather than the person he fancies himself to be.

Joe feels entitled to a better life. While openly resenting the upper-class for their arrogance and their finery, he sees their wealth as the ultimate success. The caveat is that Joe believes he deserves these trappings, but instead of working for them, he seeks the shortest means to an end.

Frankly, most of the time, Joe is a bit of a spoiled brat. He goes through life blaming his faults on everyone else, never himself. His best qualities seem to be that he is handsome and aloof, the keys to his success with the ladies.

He intends to marry Susan Brown (Heather Sears), the daughter of a wealthy, self-made man (Donald Wolfit). The fact she has a spoiled suitor from her own class, Jack Wales (John Westbrook), irritates Joe because now he will have to work to fight for her affections.

Alice’s struggle is different in that she is unapologetic for the person she is, but she laments her age and fading beauty. Her marriage is unhappy and her attraction to the much younger Joe is immediate. They begin an affair, a “friends with benefits” situation, but quickly fall in love.

The relationship with Joe extends a lifeline to unfulfilled Alice. A lifeline to which she becomes more and more dependent.

When Susan confesses her love, Joe must choose between his heart’s desire or a secure financial future. While toying with his choice, he consumes the attention of both women voraciously, indifferent to what his selfishness is doing to the women he professes to love.

Signoret received a well-deserved Academy Award for her performance. If you are a student of acting, watch how she avoids being broad and melodramatic – which would be easy to do, given the storyline. Instead, she builds her character subtly. The cigarette scene with Joe and the scene where she is completely intoxicated in the bar are standouts.

Room at the Top is an undeniable tragedy, but not a tear jerker. At the end of the film, none of the characters walk away whole. Their individual wars are lost, and time pushes forward to a gloomy and defeated future.

NOTE: I screened this film at my own expense. Free-to-view versions are available digitally. This film may also be available through subscription-based services.

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