Moody and brooding, Room at the Top looks critically at the struggle for social success in an English manufacturing town. In doing so, it not only condemns class structure, but at the same time attacks class consciousness by proving that its hero's flaw is one of fighting status rather than ignoring it.
As Room at the Top progresses, it focuses increasingly on the hero's motives and finds them increasingly wanting. What is originally seen as a commendable drive to better oneself is finally shown to be only a tragically petty battle against tragically petty people. For each rise in the climb to the top, there is clear evidence of the personal deterioration of the hero.
Such a sombre theme is brilliantly projected by Laurence Harvey as the questionable hero and Simone Signoret as his worldly and dispirited mentor. Both make the most of their important relationship, reacting to each other with a sensitivity that escapes the impersonality of the screen. Their love affair seems dramatically as well as thematically plausible. Heather Sears, cast as the daughter of the local power, employs her bland manner with purpose. Her pleasant, but empty face, and her unobtrusiveness, admirably heighten her own meaningless relationship to Harvey. Knowing that her role is one of the pawn, she has enough sense not to turn it into a tour de force performance.
Much of the power of Room at the Top can be attributed to the skill in which the scenes are juxtaposed. The movie moves from dingy urban flat to imposing country house, continually emphasizing the incongruity of the two. Supportingly, Harvey moves from bare emotion to cool calculation as he lives, in turn, with his mistress and his cold dream.
Seldom does the movie overwork a scene. It lingers over each stiuation just long enough to make its point, then hurries on to the next. Things happen fast: brawls and arguments occur quickly enough to seem truly brutal. The only fault of the movie lies in its curious lack of proportion in handling its love scenes. The focus on Harvey's affair is so weighty that there is a tendency to watch it for its own sake and not as an integral part of the story. Drawn out and over-explicit, it presents a misleading picture of the affair, making it cloying and ponderous rather than electric.
Technically, though, Room at the Top never misses a trick. The camera work is thoughtful, even analytic. Its insistence on detail provides much of the film's bite. By carefully modulating the differences between slum and castle, the sets manage to avoid an old cliche and interject a new point, that all is mediocrity. The visual suggestions of the set contribute importantly to the story, making the desire for "room at the top" ironic.
But if the movie's theme is mediocrity, the presentation of its moral is not. Room at the Top stands out as a careful and compelling use of the film medium. It tells its story with knowledgeable skill.