Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) is as keen as mustard to start his new job at the council in the town of Warnley, so much so that he arrives days earlier than expected to greet his new boss (Raymond Huntley). The man is impressed, and sets about seeing to it that Joe finds digs to stay in with his new colleague Charles (Donald Houston), though he has his sights set higher than a simple clerk's role and dreams of bettering himself. He isn't ashamed of his working class roots, he simply wants to prove he can pull himself up by his bootstraps - especially when he sees the boss's daughter.
That's not the boss who he met on his first day, that's the boss of the whole town, Mr Brown (Donald Wolfit) who really did make something of his life and can now hobnob with the upper classes thanks to the money he has made, with a posh wife and a big house to live in. His daughter is Susan (Heather Sears), a very prim and proper young woman who seems to have her path in life mapped out by her privilege, and Joe is immediately covetous of her as a symbol of everything he wants to buy into. But is he trying to be something he's not? Would he in fact be happier with more modest ambitions?
Actually, never mind that said the audiences of the day, is Room at the Top steamy or what? These days you may be baffled to see such a reaction to what looks very coy but back in the late fifties the depiction of sex was nigh on scandalous, mostly thanks to certain characters enjoying it as recreation rather than procreation, and not being shy about admitting it to one another. This got the film banned in various places (bad luck, Australia) but instead of creating a cinematic pariah, audiences flocked to see the X certificate movie, a classification usually slapped on horror and the more tawdry examples of entertainment. So the team who brought John Braine's novel to the screen had a lot to answer for.
Further respectability for grown up movies was awarded when Simone Signoret, the female lead, won the Best Actress Oscar for this and so the landscape of film was forever altered. Of course, now we're all used to its innovations and Room at the Top doesn't look anything like as fresh as it did, not that it was a bad production, but you did notice a sort of morality put into play here which spoke to an earlier time rather than looking to the future when the idea of guilt-free sex was not such a novelty. You'll recognise that while there were extramarital couplings going on here, the guilt hadn't been left behind, as the only character not to be "punished" for their lust is Susan, who being upper class gets everything she wants.
Signoret's Alice Aisgill was not so lucky; she was unhappily married and had a fling with Joe which developed into something more substantial, but as she doesn't fit into his plan she ends up in an unenviable dilemma, and this crushes Joe. The class system, the obsession with what is respectable no matter how petty, the whole notion of knowing your place that our anti-hero is determined to send flying in his wake, simply proves too powerful for one man, and Harvey, never a sympathetic actor, found himself a star who was good in the right role, but never a performer who was going to be the cognoscenti's favourite, not least because he was a strange, icy-cold presence in real life as well. Signoret, in the victim role, was far warmer and more easy to care about, taking on the mantle of the sacrifice Joe must make and having us feel so very sorry for her as a result. The stifling atmosphere was well deployed, but the tragedy was too complete to be satisfying drama. Weird forties crossed with the fifties time frame too. Music by Mario Nascimbene.