Monday, March 11, 2019

Room at the Top

The mystery behind Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1959), currently in revival at Film Forum, is what constitutes the fatal love between Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret) and Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey). Alice is an unhappily married French woman living in industrial England and Joe ia an ambitious working class war veteran. Joe is the ultimate arriviste and his ambition is primarily sexual to that extent that his desire is created by the perception of what he thinks he can’t have. “Find a girl of your own…” his boss warns. “Class?” Joe responds, angrily finishing the sentence. “Background” is the reply. Taking off from the title (is there room at the top?) the film is shot in angles. In the first scene Joe sees Susan Brown (Heather Sears), the daughter of a wealthy businessman, getting into a sports car from a second floor window. He’ll eventually follow her into a lingerie shop in which the bra she might wear is tauntingly displayed in a storefront window. Is Joe enthralled by the woman or the world she represents? Is he stalled at the intersection of sex and ambition? Ironically he spots both his lovers looking up at the same stage of the local theater troop and one that he’s significantly laughed off of when he tries to read some lines. Later in the movie Alice and Joe will escape to Sparrow Hill which looks down on their industrial town of Warnley. It’s a scene right out of a Thomas Hardy novel and it may give a clue to the essence of the love which is so uncharacteristic of the bounder Harvey plays. Love freed from social climbing is as foreign to Joe as Signoret’s accent. It’s basically an unnatural act which flourishes in natural settings (besides the room of the title there's actually a lover’s aerie in the countryside which is a respite from the cruel dog eat dog world in which Joe is trying to make his way). The real evolution of the movie revolves around the development of Joe's sensibility. His relationship with Alice changes him (it's something Alice actually remarks on in a scene) and he's ultimately caught in a vice. Room at the Top was one of the first of the angry young man films that included The L-Shaped Room (1962), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and of course Look Back in Anger (1959)..Shot in black in white it captures the gloom and entrapment of the industrial North. The whistle of a teapot segues into the shrill sound of a train’s steam engine as an ongoing leitmotif. Irony is the emotion that accompanies the film’s tragic denouement. “You’ve got everything you wanted,” is the taunt that Joe faces more than once. As he drives away from a wedding that seems like a sentence, his new wife declares, “Now we really belong to each other, til death us do part.” There are artful bits of stage business throughout like one scene in which school kids are coming up a road towards Joe as he descends and one final truly lovely touch. The car carrying Susan and Joe away to their future disappears into the horizon and then just a lone figure crosses the road.

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