Succession as seen from the perspective of someone like the inadequate Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), who has married his way into big business and has an elevated idea of entitlement.
Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) was a genuine working-class hero of Room at the Top (1958) who connived his way into the marriage bed of businessman Abe Brown’s (Donald Wolfit) daughter Susan (Jean Simmons) and set himself up as the heir apparent. Several years on, it’s not quite worked out the way he planned, stuck in a loveless marriage, out of his depth among the Yorkshire elite, passed over for promotion, pinning hopes of personal happiness on an affair with television personality Norah (Honor Blackman).
The only problem is that screen-wise he’s a b*****d without an ounce of the dominating personality of Brian Cox, the ultimate b*****d’s b*****d. This plays out more The Tale of Two Spoiled Brats. So if you’re looking to see Lampton get his come-uppance on several fronts, you’ve come to the right place. Unfortunately, that means there’s isn’t a single likeable character in sight. It might be the way of the world among the high-rollers but it makes for rather dispirited watching.
On the other hand, Lampton was always such a louse it is enjoyable to see him not only being put in his place but ending up a few rungs further down the ladder than where he started. This might have scored some points for social commentary but it’s such a scattershot approach – racing pigeons, local government corruption (by Tories, who else), strip club, ballroom dancing (the original Come Dancing before that usurper Strictly Come Dancing came along), drinking a yard of ale, swimming in the canal, ruthless entrepreneurs, luvvies – it does little justice to any.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect is the independence of the women. Susan has a lover Mark (Michael Craig) and emasculates Joe by going behind his back to get whatever she wants, financially, from her father. Ambitious Norah refuses to give up her career for Joe and is likely to withdraw her favors should his ambition fails to match hers.
Even the cuckolded get in on the act, taunting those who had fallen for their partners’ adulterous ways. George Aisgill (Allan Cuthbertson) mocks Joe for falling (in the previous film) for his wife when she went after anything in trousers. Similarly, Mark’s wife ridicules Susan for just being the latest notch on Mark’s bed.
Naturally, Joe hasn’t the wit to see what a good deal he has and spends all his time in self-pitying mode. Poor Joe – he is stuck with driving a white Jag while Abe swans around in a Rolls-Royce. Poor Joe – his wife isn’t going to make do with hotel bedrooms for illicit assignations, but makes full use of the house. Poor Joe – his son doesn’t like him. Poor Joe – he trots out all his childhood deprivations at the slightest opportunity as if auditioning for a Monty Python sketch.
Poor Joe – he’s not even that good a businessman, so naïve that he doesn’t realise that many deals require sweeteners, backhanders, bribes, though smart enough enough to add on a little extra, when extracting such sums from the more worldly Abe, for himself. Poor Joe – he believes business blandishments. Poor Joe – Abe has no interest in the “Report” he’s slaved his guts over. Poor Joe – when he applies for another job, his lack of education marks him down.
The big problem is it’s impossible to feel any sympathy foe Joe. Your heart is more likely to go out to those he wounds with his atrocious behavior. The more he blames everyone else for his predicament, the more an idiot he looks, duped and a biter bit.
And Laurence Harvey (A Dandy in Aspic, 1968) whose screen person is one part arrogance, one part snarky, and one part well-groomed male is not capable of making you feel for his character. Jean Simmons (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) reveals greater depths, vulnerable, passionate, seductive, practical. Honor Blackman (A Twist of Sand, 1968) gives a good account of herself as an ambitious woman with a conscience.
Few of the other characters are more than ciphers but there’s a decent supporting cast in Donald Wolfit (Becket, 1964), Michael Craig (Stolen Hours, 1963), Robert Morley (Deadlier than the Male, 1967), Allan Cuthbertson (The 7th Dawn, 1964) and Nigel Davenport (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965).
Canadian Ted Kotcheff (Tiara Tahiti, 1962) directed from a screenplay by fellow country man Mordecai Richler (Young and Willing, 1962) based on the John Braine bestseller. And it seems a bit mean to film it in black-and-white, presumably to emphasize the social aspects when in fact most of its takes place in glamorous settings.
5 thoughts on “Life at the Top (1965) ***”
I see you chose the same rather wonderful Belgian poster as I did. But I liked the film a lot more than you did, possibly because it is a real Bradford film and I tend to think about it as the forgotten successor to Billy Liar (1963) as a film saying something about the decline of the wool capital of the world. But its timing is perhaps what makes it problematic. Braine’s novel was published in 1962 almost at the end of the ‘angry young Northern man’ of British New Wave cinema. Yet this film also takes on ideas from the later London-based films (which mainly featured the women as stars?). It’s worth thinking about the film as coming out around the same time as Darling which opened just four months earlier. In that film Laurence Harvey is one of the men paired with Julie Christie. She was the driver of Billy Liar, heading to London which she saw as the future.
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You are righ t about the emergence of the independent young women on screen in that year. I make more reference to it in my forthcoming review of The Wild Affair. I know Bradford quite well from attending the Widescreen Festival but of course there’s hardly anything left of the old mills. Paisley, where I live, was a massive mill town, so I’m familiar with its sad decline. Mostly, I didn”t like Harvey. He was more sympathetic and more convincing in the original for some reason.
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I’m going to tell Coxy how you described him next time I cross paths with him!
Got this on DVD if you want to complete the set…
This was the offshoot of a television series as I recall, still with Haigh but also a robust Colin Welland. But, yes, a good plot.
Cox has already f***** me sideways.