Life at the Top
Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) is the proverbial boy from the wrong side of the tracks who has found himself deep within the heart of enemy territory amidst the posh denizens of small town Warnley. He seems alienated from even his own son whose grandfather pays for his expensive boarding school. Lampton clearly both pities the boy, seeing a mirror image of his own class anxieties as a child, and resents him for possessing the silver spoon he never had.
Lampton has a plum job courtesy of his wealthy mill-owner father-in-law Abe Brown (Donald Wolfit), a gorgeous home, and a beautiful wife Susan (Jean Simmons). Yet he is still not satisfied. Lampton is grappling with the condition of being second-rate. He is deeply cynical about the shallow, wealthy peers he's surrounded by. When he's elected to the town council on the local aristocrats' conservative ticket, he sees firsthand how blatant and corrupt the class divide is, between the moneyed power structure and the neighboring slums where Lampton grew up. He finds his opinions diverging sharply from those of his wealthy cohorts who naturally favor money over social justice.
When a beautiful, equally skeptical London journalist Norah Hauxley (Honor Blackman) comes to Warnley and begins to appraise the ugly class schisms of the town, Lampton is instantly smitten. Blond, acerbic, brilliant and ambitious, she is everything his wife is not. Lampton sets his hat to winning Hauxley. But he soon finds, after following Hauxley back to London, that his position on the social class pecking order is not as secure as he thought. If his wife and wealthy father-in-law vouched for him in Warnley, compensating for his ignoble upbringing and lack of an education, in London the elites quickly sniff him out in some of the most excruciating and shaming moments in Life at the Top.
Steeped in the grubby business of real life, the movie's title carries a touch of cynicism, since "the top" is characterized by talk of The Ice Storm -style (1997) key parties, suicide, betrayal, adultery and a profound streak of joylessness. Typical of the utter cynicism of Life at the Top, Lampton's best friend Mark (Michael Craig) who advises him to start an affair of his own, is sleeping with Lampton's wife.
A trenchant examination of Britain's notoriously intractable class system, Life at the Top shows the ways social class defines nearly every facet of Lampton's life. But the essential dilemma Lampton faces is an existential one, notes Los Angeles Times writer Philip K. Scheuer. "What is life? What you want it to be or what you'll settle for?" he asks in a 1965 review of the film which compares the tale of ennui to La Dolce Vita (1960) and Darling (1965), two films about comparably amoral sophisticates. "If you thought the previous picture was cynical and immoral," he noted, "wait till you ogle this one."
Life at the Top is a sequel to the 1959 drama Room at the Top, which told the back story of Lampton's crawl from the lower rungs of society by marrying Susan Brown (played in the prequel by Heather Sears). Room at the Top is considered one of the most influential in the British New Wave movement of gritty, naturalistic dramas, and both it and Life at the Top were based on novels by John Braine. Room at the Top won Simone Signoret an Academy Award for her performance as an unhappily married woman who falls for Lampton, a part that was originally offered to Vivien Leigh. Harvey received an Oscar® nomination in the 1959 prequel for his performance as a working class anti-hero.
Set ten years after Room at the Top, Life at the Top eventually led to a 23-episode 1970 British TV series called Man at the Top starring Kenneth Haigh as Joe Lampton.
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Producer: James Woolf, William Kirby
Screenplay: Mordecai Richler based on the novel Life at the Top by John Braine
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Production Design: Edward Marshall
Music: Richard Addinsell
Cast: Laurence Harvey (Joe Lampton), Jean Simmons (Susan Lampton), Honor Blackman (Norah Hauxley), Michael Craig (Mark), Donald Wolfit (Abe Brown), Robert Morley (Tiffield), Margaret Johnston (Sybil), Ambrosine Phillpotts (Mrs. Brown), Allan Cuthbertson (George Aisgill), Paul A. Martin (Harry), Frances Cosslett (Barbara), Ian Shand (Hethersett), George A. Cooper (Graffham), Nigel Davenport (Mottram), Andrew Laurence (McLelland), Geoffrey Bayldon (Industrial Psychologist), Denis Quilley (Ben), David Oxley (Tim), David McKail (Oscar), Paul Whitsun-Jones (Keatley), Charles Lamb (Wincastle).
by Felicia Feaster