Room at the Top

Movie review by
Kat Halstead, Common Sense Media
Room at the Top Movie Poster Image
Classic portrayal of ruthless ambition has sex and violence.
  • NR
  • 1959
  • 112 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Lessons are learned the hard way. Actions have consequences -- don't play with the emotions of others. Selfishness doesn't pay and wealth doesn't always bring happiness. An adulterous affair takes place.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Joe is selfish, ruthless, and solely focused on societal advancement and financial gain. He manipulates others and treats women badly. Members of high society are snobbish and disparaging towards the working class. Women are objectified and often portrayed as either wide-eyed innocents or promiscuous. Characters gamble, have affairs, and take part in bribery and blackmail.


Characters are punched and kicked. A gang attack results in some blood and injury to the face. There is an instance of domestic violence where a character is throttled and threatened with a beating. War is mentioned, including reference to prisoners of war and shots of a bomb site where a character's parents died. A car crash and bloody aftermath are described but not shown.


There is kissing on the face, neck, and shoulders and sex is implied through multiple "before" and "after" scenes in bed. The main character pressures someone into having sex with them. There are sexually charged comments in the workplace. Affairs are mentioned and a character is referred to as a "whore" on a number of occasions.


Occasional language includes "bitch," "whore," "bastard," and "swine." The term "virgin" is also used as an insult.


Though the movie is focused on the desire for wealth and position, there are few specific examples of consumerism.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

There is frequent smoking. Characters drink alcohol in bars, restaurants, and at home. On two occasions characters are seen to be drunk and subsequently suffer violent outcomes as a result.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Room at the Top is a BAFTA-winning 1959 British black and white drama -- based on a novel -- about a working-class man who will stop at nothing to succeed. Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) is ruthless in his ambition and covets money and position above all else. He sets his sights on a rich young woman and manipulates her into falling in love with him, all the while having an affair with an older married woman. Typical of the era, sexism is rife and men often treat women as objects and possessions. Similarly characters are frequently seen smoking. There is drinking and gambling. Occasional mild language includes "whore" and "bastard." Death is mentioned on a number of occasions and there are some violent scenes -- including domestic violence. Sex is heavily implied and directly spoken about.

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What's the story?

In ROOM AT THE TOP working-class accountant Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) moves to the northern English town of Warnley to take on a new job and build a new life. His ruthless ambition to rise in class and social status leads him to target a local millionaire's young daughter, Susan (Heather Sears). While aggressively attempting to woo her, he has an affair with a married French woman, Alice (Simone Signoret) who he soon falls in love with. Caught between two lovers, Joe must decide what's most important to him -- money or love.

Is it any good?

Based on John Braine's bestselling novel, the film was highly influential in British cinema and stands the test of time well enough -- despite the jarring sexism. A kitchen sink-style drama with an angry young man at its center, it is a poignant and well-crafted story that pulls no punches in terms of its depiction of class and relationships. It certainly lives up to its billing of "a savage story of lust and ambition." It makes sense then that one if its two Oscars went to the screenplay, while the other went to Signoret's phenomenal performance as Joe's lover, Alice. An early example of a complex female character onscreen, Alice is an unhappily married woman with an independent spirit, who is both confident yet intensely vulnerable. Harvey's narcissistic chauvinist has proven less timeless, but remains a strong character despite the questionable accent.

Directed by Jack Clayton -- who would later go on to direct The Great Gatsby (1974) -- and filmed by cinematographer Freddie Francis (The Elephant Man, Cape Fear), Room at the Top captures the post-war northern town with gritty realness. The atmospheric bars, moonlit streets, and lavish upper-class interiors all add a hint of romanticism that is mirrored in the tragic ending. While the content doesn't have the shock value of its initial release -- when the frank portrayal of sexuality was somewhat more scandalous -- the story still has a universal appeal in its portrayal of class struggle, moral compromise, and the unfathomable complexities of love.   

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the portrayal and treatment of women in Room at the Top. How does it compare to that of women today? How can gender stereotypes in movies impact kids' development?

  • Do you think it was possible for Joe to have a happy ending? Did he deserve one?

  • How did the movie portray different classes? How did they treat each other?

  • Are any of the characters sympathetic? What are some of their positive characteristics?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love romantic drama

Themes & Topics

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