Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) finally has everything he ever wanted: the high-paying job at one of the biggest companies in this Northern English city, married to the boss's daughter, two kids he is proud of, all his dreams have come true. But it's not enough. One raw, cold morning, he invites the paperboy in for a cup of tea and notes how his son looks down on the lad, who after all is starting from a position in life Joe himself had to suffer through to get where he is today. Has he sold out? Or should he be casting his net further to see if even this set of circumstances can be improved? And that could mean going it alone, without the business or his wife Susan (Jean Simmons) to support him...
Room at the Top was such a bombshell in the British culture, in print and on screen, as it ushered in the Angry Young Men, the kitchen sink genre, and eventually the Swinging Sixties as it stood. So influential was it in this tale of a young Northerner who seeks to better himself socially and in employment that its writer John Braine found himself stuck in a dilemma as a follow-up was expected. He duly wrote one - Life at the Top - about the further adventures of Lampton, but he must have been aware in the back of his mind that this character was what he was going to be best known for, it was his legacy to literature and cinema. The odd thing was, he didn't even like Harvey in the role.
Being a tough Yorkshire writer of the sort lampooned in a famous Monty Python sketch of a few years after this, he was not too keen on Harvey's offscreen lifestyle, which included affairs with both sexes and his notoriously hard to get on with personality, yet for the public, Harvey was Lampton after they made Room at the Top one of the big earners at the box office in 1959, so of course he was invited back to reprise the part. Maybe a different star would have made this come across fresher, as long stretches of Life at the Top would have you comparing them to similar scenes in its predecessor, for while Joe has moved up in the world, his concerns and foibles remained more or less the same.
That assists in the character's consistency, in a leopard can't change his spots way, or a faithfulness to what had made Room such a hit, but you couldn't get away from the fact it was running over some very familiar ground, not least because many imitators had sprung up in the intervening years, quite often on television more than the silver screen. Therefore this entry would have to do something spectacular to supersede the memories of the original, and it really didn't, sticking to the maxim that if you're making a sequel, make it as close to the first one as possible otherwise you'll simply annoy the audience. But surely that was no bad thing when Harvey was returning to his signature role? Wasn't this worth a revival? Yet the general reaction at the time was this was the same old, same old.
Nevertheless, there were variations. Here Lampton gets to find out what it is like to be cheated on romantically when Susan has an affair with his best friend and co-worker Mark (Michael Craig); when Joe discovers this, practically walking in on them in flagrante delicto, it crushes him, despite him already making moves on posh TV presenter and activist Norah (Honor Blackman, fresh from Goldfinger). She offers a way out - down South - that he takes, but this sets him even further adrift and involves a lot of soul-searching (basically moping about in a dressing gown and eating cold baked beans). Donald Wolfit was as entertaining as before as the boss, and there were plenty of nice character bits for everyone in the cast as Lampton tries politics (guess what, his heart isn't in it) and tackles the class divide not by bridging it as he in in a position to do, but by being embarrassed by it. Funnily enough, one memorable sequence had a business meeting in a strip club, where the performer goes by the name "Stormy Trooper" and goosesteps in a state of undress. Alas, more memorable than a lot of this. Music by Richard Addinsell.