Room at the Top was recognized as a major landmark in British film history, both nationally and internationally. In the acclaim it received abroad and the cinematic renaissance it initiated at home it can be seen to occupy a place in Fifties cinema analogous to that of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) in the Thirties. The epoch-making difference is, of course, that the Thirties film featured the private life of a king and the Fifties film the private life of a working-class man.
Room at the Top achieved sensational critical recognition, but the immediate popular reaction waas to its sexual content, loudly trumpeted by the British press. 'Unblushingly frank portrayal of intimate human relationships' said Reynolds' News. 'Now Britain joins the bedroom brigade - and adds a slice of Yorkshire pudding' said the Daily Herald. 'The saltiest, frankest, most adult British picture for years' said the Daily Sketch. The film was denounced by the Catholic Legion of Decency in the USA and attacked by moralists in Britain. It was banned in Australia for its sexual explicitness. The film censor John Trevelyan, writing in 1973, put it fairly in its historical context:
'In retrospect one can see that Jack Clayton's Room at the Top was a milestone in the history of British films, and in a way a milestone in the history of British film censorship. Up to this time the cinema, with rare exceptions, had presented a fantasy world; this film dealt with real people and real problems. At a time its sex-scenes were regarded as sesnsational, and some of the critics who praised the film congratulated the Board on having had the courage to pass it. Ten years later these scenes seemed very mild and unsensational ... There was no nudity or simulated copulation, but there was rather more frankness about sexual relations in the dialogue than people had been used to.'
But honesty about sex was only one side of the picture. As John Braine, the author of the original novel put it:
'The new dimension of the film was in presenting a boy from the working classes not as a downtrodden victim, but as he really was. It wasn't important that Joe Lampton was honest about sex, what was important was that Joe was honest about the whole business of class. Most ambitious working-class boys want to get the hell out of the working class. That was a simple truth that had never been stated before.'
Both the book and the film Room at the Top were the products of the social and cultural revolt of the late Fifties; a revolt whose characteristics were youth, working-class consciousness and hostility to the Establishment and whose beacon fires were rock'n'roll, CND and the so-called 'angry young men' of theatre and literature. It was born of frustration with the apparent rigidity and changelessness of the British class system and the denial to the working class of the means of advancement. It led inexorably to the victory of the Labour Party in the 1964 election and the end of 13 years of Conservative rule.
Room at the Top showed how under the existing systems a working-class boy with the desire to succeed could only do so at the cost of his self-respect, peace of mind and personal happiness. The forces ranged against Joe ('I'm working class and proud of it') are epitomized by the characters of Jack Wales, Mr and Mrs Brown and his own aunt and uncle. Jack Wales, Susan's boyfriend, is an icily patronizing, upper-crust, ex-squadron leader, who never loses an opportunity to put Joe in his place. He was the symbol of everything the British 'New Wave' disliked in the old order. But he had allies in the Browns, Susan's parents.
Brown, a self-made millionaire from humble origins, now a Tory councillor, showed the tendency of those who escaped from the working class to join the Establishment. This point is reinforced in the portrayal of his wife, a mercilessly caricatured snob, who, on being introduced to Joe, observes: 'Curious names some of these people have'. On the other hand, Joe has to face the conservatism and apathy of the working class itself in the face of entrenched privilege; his aunt and uncle, old-fashioned, decent, hard-working folk, urge him to stick to his own class and not try to rise above his appointed place. The state of affairs which the film highlighted was one that many vainly hoped the election of the Labour Party would sweep away. It was failure to achieve that which signalled the ebbing of the 'New Wave'.
Room at the Top was the first feature film to be directed by Jack Clayton, who had previously directed and Oscar-winning short The Bespoke Overcoat (1955), and he brought to it a delicacy, insight and maturity which set new standards for film-making in Britain. It also won a deserved Oscar for Simone Signoret, giving one of the best performances of her career, as Alice Aisgill, the neglected and ill-treated older woman with whom Joe has an affair. Her projection of Alice's vulnerability, tenderness and essential warmth could not have been bettered. Laurence Harvey, too, gave his finest performance and won his best-ever notices. 'Superb' the Daily Express called him. Donald Wolfit, subduing his natural flamboyance, similarly reached the heights with his shrewd and knowing portrayal of the blunt Northern millionaire.
The haunting black-and-white photography of realistic locations (Bradford in this film), the sympathetic three-dimensional portrayal of working-class characters and the perception and insight of the writing and the direction became the hallmarks of that distinguished group of British films which followed in its wake - including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Kind of Loving, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (both 1962) - and they remain among the finest products of British cinema.