Room at the Top
Original British 1959 quad size film poster
Directed byJack Clayton
Screenplay byNeil Paterson
Based onRoom at the Top
by John Braine
Produced byJohn Woolf
James Woolf
CinematographyFreddie Francis
Edited byRalph Kemplen
Music byMario Nascimbene
Distributed by
Release dates
  • 22 January 1959 (1959-01-22) (UK)
  • 30 March 1959 (1959-03-30) (US)
Running time
115 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget£280,000[1] or £231,387[2][3]
Box office$2,400,000 (US)[4]

Room at the Top is a 1959 British drama film based on the 1957 novel of the same name by John Braine. It was adapted by Neil Paterson (with uncredited work by Mordecai Richler), directed by Jack Clayton (his feature-length debut), and produced by John and James Woolf. The film stars Laurence Harvey, Simone Signoret, Heather Sears, Donald Wolfit, Donald Houston, and Hermione Baddeley.

The film was widely lauded, and it was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning two: Best Actress (Signoret) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Paterson). Its other nominations at the 32nd Academy Awards were for Best Picture, Best Director (Clayton), Best Actor (Harvey), and Best Supporting Actress (Baddeley).[5] Baddeley's performance, consisting of 2 minutes and 19 seconds of screen time, is the shortest ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar.[6]


Soon after the Second World War, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England, Joseph (Joe) Lampton, an ambitious young man, moves from his hometown, the dreary factory town of Dufton, to the somewhat larger town of Warnley to assume a secure but poorly paid and dead-end post in the Borough Treasurer's Department. Determined to get ahead, and ignoring the warnings of his colleague and flatmate Charlie Soames, he pursues Susan Brown, the daughter of a local industrial magnate. She has been dating wealthy Jack Wales but Joe is able to charm her. Mr and Mrs Brown attempt to frustrate Joe's social climbing by persuading Joe's boss to encourage him to pursue a woman of his own class; getting him a job offer back in Dufton, which he refuses when he discovers the machination; and sending Susan on a trip abroad, but Susan remains smitten.

While pursuing Susan, Joe continues to see Alice Aisgill, an unhappily married Frenchwoman ten years his senior who came to England as a teacher a decade earlier and married George Aisgill, a haughty and abusive upper-middle class Englishman who is now having numerous affairs. Joe thinks he is just killing time with Alice and Alice says they can just be "loving friends". Their feelings for each other begin to turn into something more and Joe starts to lose interest in his pursuit of Susan. The relationship is passionate, tempestuous and after a particularly heated argument, Joe switches his focus back to Susan. He manages to take her virginity but is unsatisfied and finds himself drawn back to Alice.

Joe and Alice go away on a short holiday and Alice is overjoyed that Joe seems to have decided to end his quest for wealth and social status in favour of simply being happy with himself and with her. They decide she will ask for a divorce when she gets home but when she does, George refuses and declares he will ruin Joe and Alice, both socially and financially, if their relationship continues. While Joe is brooding over this, Mr Brown delivers the news that Susan is pregnant and that he expects Joe to stop seeing Alice and marry Susan, in which case Joe can come to work for him at a generous salary.

Seeing no way around his obstacles to a relationship with Alice, Joe tells her that he is going to marry Susan. Heartbroken, Alice gets drunk in a pub and the next morning, while his co-workers are celebrating his engagement, Joe hears that she drove her car off a cliff to which she and he used to go together and died slowly over the course of several hours. Devastated, Joe leaves the office and wanders to the flat where he and Alice had their trysts but Alice's friend Elspeth, who owns the flat, drives him away by screaming at him and blaming him for Alice's death.

Joe goes to a pub on the waterfront, where a woman named Mavis comes on to him because he is well-dressed. Although he is very drunk and does not seem very interested in her (he calls her Alice), Joe keeps a man from taking Mavis away against her will. When Joe is alone, the man and some of his friends beat Joe unconscious. In the morning, Charlie finds Joe lying in the street with a battered face but Joe's only concern is his guilt over what he feels he led Alice to do.

A short time later, Joe and Susan get married. With a rich wife and high-paying job, he has got everything he thought he wanted. As they are driven away after the wedding, Susan's effusive praise of the ceremony is cut short when she notices that there are tears in Joe's eyes, which she misinterprets by saying "I believe you really are sentimental after all".



There are some differences between Braine's novel and the film. For one, Joe's friend Charlie Soames is a friend from his hometown of Dufton in the novel, whereas, in the film, he meets Charlie in Warnley (which is called Warley in the book). Also, in the book, more is made of Joe's lodging at the Thompsons', which, in the novel, he arranged before his arrival in Warley (in the film, Charlie arranges it soon after they meet): it is through his association with the Thompsons that Joe is able to gain entry to a higher social circle than that to which he had previously had access, and Mrs Thompson's room is noted as being at "the top" of Warley geographically, which serves as a metaphor for Joe's social-climbing.


Producer James Woolf bought the film rights to Braine's novel, originally intending to cast Stewart Granger as Joe and Jean Simmons as Susan. Vivien Leigh was originally offered the part of Alice.[7] Woolf hired Clayton as director after seeing The Bespoke Overcoat,[8] an Academy Award-winning short film that was produced and distributed by companies founded by the Woolf brothers.


For the production, in addition to filming on sets at Shepperton Studios in Surrey, there was extensive location-shooting in Halifax, Yorkshire, which stood in for the fictional towns of Warnley and Dufton. Greystones, a large mansion in the Savile Park area of Halifax, was used as the location for exterior scenes of the Brown family mansion; Halifax railway station doubled as Warnley Station in the film; and Halifax Town Hall was used as the Warnley Town Hall. The wedding was filmed at All Souls church, Boothtown, Halifax. Some scenes were also filmed in Bradford, notably the one in which Joe travels on a bus and spots Susan in a lingerie shop and those outside the amateur dramatics theatre.

Freddie Francis says John Woolf wanted to fire Francis during filming but Clayton refused.[9]


The film was critically acclaimed.[10] Reviewing the movie for The New York Times, Abraham Weiler praised Braine's novel, which he compared favourably to John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, and noted the depth of Harvey's, Signoret's, and Sears's portrayals, concluding that the movie "may be basically cheerless and somber, but it has a strikingly effective view."[11]

Room at the Top marked the beginning of Jack Clayton's career as an important director. It was the third most popular film at the British box office in 1959 (after Carry On Nurse and Inn of the Sixth Happiness),[12] grossing $700,000.[13]

Room at the Top is seen as the first of the British New Wave of kitchen-sink-realism film dramas.[14] It was followed by a sequel in 1965 titled Life at the Top.

Awards and nominations

Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Motion Picture John Woolf and James Woolf Nominated [15]
Best Director Jack Clayton Nominated
Best Actor Laurence Harvey Nominated
Best Actress Simone Signoret Won
Best Supporting Actress Hermione Baddeley Nominated
Best Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium Neil Paterson Won
British Academy Film Awards Best Film from any Source Won [16]
Best British Film Won
Best British Actor Laurence Harvey Nominated
Donald Wolfit Nominated
Best British Actress Hermione Baddeley Nominated
Best Foreign Actress Simone Signoret Won
Most Promising Newcomer to Film Mary Peach Nominated
Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or Jack Clayton Nominated [17]
Best Actress Simone Signoret Won
Golden Globe Awards Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Simone Signoret Nominated [18]
Samuel Goldwyn Award Won
Jussi Awards Best Foreign Actress Simone Signoret Won
Laurel Awards Top Female Dramatic Performance Nominated
National Board of Review Awards Top Foreign Films 2nd Place [19]
Best Actress Simone Signoret Won
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Film Nominated [20]
Best Director Jack Clayton Nominated
Best Actor Laurence Harvey Nominated
Best Actress Simone Signoret Nominated

See also


  1. ^ Alexander Walker (1974). Hollywood, England. Stein and Day. p. 50.
  2. ^ Sarah Street (2014) Film Finances and the British New Wave, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 34:1, 23-42 p26, DOI: 10.1080/01439685.2014.879000
  3. ^ Chapman, J. (2022). The Money Behind the Screen: A History of British Film Finance, 1945-1985. Edinburgh University Press p 359
  4. ^ "M-G-M CASHING IN ON OSCAR VICTORY: ' Ben-Hur' Gross Expected to Reach 7 Million by Week's End -- 'Spartacus' Booked". The New York Times. 7 April 1960. p. 44.
  5. ^ "Academy Awards Database: Room at the Top". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 8 October 2016.[permanent dead link]
  6. ^ "Screen Time Central: Shortest Performances". Retrieved 24 July 2019.
  7. ^ David Thomson Have You Seen, London: Allen Lane; New York: Knopf, 2008, p.736
  8. ^ Alexander Walker, Hollywood, England, Stein and Day, 1974 p51
  9. ^ "Interview with Freddie Francis". British Entertainment History Project. 1993–1994.
  10. ^ "British 'Room' Rousing $19,500 Sets London Pix Pace". Variety. 4 February 1959. p. 13. Retrieved 4 July 2019 – via Internet Archive.
  11. ^ Weiler, A.H. (31 March 1959). "Screen: 'Room at Top'". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 September 2023.
  12. ^ The Times, 1 January 1960, page 13: Year of Profitable British Films – The Times Digital Archive, accessed 11 July 2012
  13. ^ "Gag-Films Rule British Trade". Variety. 20 April 1960. p. 47 – via Internet Archive.
  14. ^ Roberts, Andrew (21 June 2009). "The film that changed British Cinema". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 November 2016.
  15. ^ "The 32nd Academy Awards (1960) Nominees and Winners". Archived from the original on 6 July 2011. Retrieved 21 August 2011.
  16. ^ "BAFTA Awards: Film in 1959". BAFTA. 1959. Retrieved 16 September 2016.
  17. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Room at the Top". Retrieved 15 February 2009.
  18. ^ "Room at the Top – Golden Globes". HFPA. Retrieved 5 July 2021.
  19. ^ "1959 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved 5 July 2021.
  20. ^ "1959 New York Film Critics Circle Awards". New York Film Critics Circle. Retrieved 5 July 2021.