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"Be careful what you ask for...."
on 26 September 2005
Throughout the 1950s, a group of young British writers were referred to as "angry young men" because, in their novels and plays, they excoriated what they perceived to be the dominant materialistic values of their society following World War Two. They included playwrights John Osborne and Kingsley Amis and novelists John Braine, John Wain, and Alan Silitoe. This film is based on Braine's novel Room at the Top; Neil Patterson received an Academy Away for best adapted screenplay. Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) is the focal point. Driven by smoldering ambition to overcome his modest circumstances and deeply resentful of the wealthiest man in a North Country village (Brown, played by Donald Wolfit), he finally obtains a position in Brown's company and begins his difficult journey to "the top" while including marriage to Brown's daughter Susan (Heather Sears) among his ultimate objectives. Along the way, he meets an older but still attractive Frenchwoman, Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret) with whom he has an affair. For Joe, it is a mere dalliance along his career path; she, however, falls in love with him. Beyond the passionate sex which she enjoys as much as he does, Alice also helps Joe to refine his social graces and increase his understanding and appreciation of the cultural arts. (Signoret received an Academy Award as best actress for her performance in this film.) Joe seems grateful for her contributions to his self-improvement but really has no long-term interest in her. He remains obsessed with reaching "the top" with wife Susan at his side, possessing great wealth, power, and prestige.
And then he learns from Susan that....
Alice is the most sympathetic character in the film, largely because Joe exploits her so callously. As for Brown, "what you see is what you get": a class-conscious, hard-driving, no-nonsense capitalist. Unlike Joe, no need for dissembling. Brown is at "the top" and (by God) he intends to remain there. Susan is of great importance to Joe (and to her father, of course) but is of little importance to the film's story line except as one of the ambitious goals which motivate Joe. He really cares little for her as a person, one way or the other. Were she in his own social class, Joe would probably have little to do with her...except, perhaps, for occasional sexual gratification (for himself). At least Alice offered more than sex...she offered unconditional love. Only at the end of the film does Joe begin to realize what he has gained by reaching "the top" and at what a cost. Both in the novel and in this film, Joe symbolizes just about everything which enraged Braine and other British writers.
Years later, in a brief excerpt from "The Paradox of Our Time," George Carlin observes that "We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often. We've learned how to make a living, but not a life; we've added years to life, not life to years." He could well be describing Joe Lampton and countless others who seem to know the cost of everything but the value of nothing, who (in Socrates' words) live unexamined lives, in Thoreau's words "lives of quiet desperation."
Those who share my admiration of this film are urged to check out A Place in the Sun (1951), Look Back in Anger (1958), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1961), and A Taste of Honey (also 1951).