Sometimes innocence can be deadly. 1959's Room at the Top features a young, working class man attempting a high wire act of class mobility, moving from a factory town and uncomfortably wearing suits to fit in at a bureaucratic job. His fate is caught up with two women in this Kitchen Sink noir directed by Jack Clayton with moody cinematography by Freddie Francis.
Joe (Laurence Harvey) is the angry young man here, impatient at his slow moving career and resentful of the rich and influential. As luck would have it, though, he falls for Susan (Heather Sears), the daughter of the most powerful man in town, Mr. Brown (Donald Wolfit), who owns everything, including Joe’s job. Susan already has a fiance and Joe’s advances seem to frighten her—and, of course, her parents don’t approve so they send her off for a French vacation. Though Mr. Brown does seem to feel some grudging sympathy for Joe, having a working class background himself.
But despite his fervour, Joe winds up with another woman, Alice (Simone Signoret), a married woman ten years his senior. She regards this boiling young man with cool compassion and talks about their relationship with sober wisdom. “I’m frightened. Nobody was meant to be as happy as I am now. It can’t last. Like a bubble it’s going to burst.” It’s a statement that implies experience with disappointments yet also a persistent vulnerability to them.
A chance meeting between Joe and Susan’s family results in him failing to contain indignation at their sideways digs at his background. This wins a little more of Mr. Brown’s sympathy and Susan’s initial fear has turned into excitement and attraction.
Both Susan and Joe are young and don’t know what they’re doing. Partly their fate is easy to predict and partly it goes in directions no-one could expect. And poor Alice may be the least prepared of all. She’s shot and presented like a femme fatale and Susan comes off as another common noir character, the innocent cheerleader who usually acts as an opposing force in the mind of the male protagonist, as in Double Indemnity or Out of the Past. And Susan is innocent but, as with Joe, primarily what that means is she doesn’t really know what she’s doing nor does she see the full implications of her decisions. And Joe, whose blunders and pride lead him in a precarious direction, doesn’t know the full implications of the success he seeks. The cruellest thing about it, though, is that the choices he has to make become crystal clear in every way, from Alice’s husband threatening to destroy the both of them if he chooses to go with Alice to Susan’s father threatening to destroy him if he doesn’t go with Susan. This leads to a conclusion that may be melodramatic but, if you think about the credibility of every piece of the puzzle, has a terrible authenticity to it.
Room at the Top is available on The Criterion Channel until September 30.