When Laurence Harvey's Joe Lampton found that there was "Room at the Top" in Jack Clayton's 1958 masterpiece an important new director was hailed internationally. Room at the Top was a breakthrough in British cinema: adult and forthright, it managed to combine cinematic literacy with a deep-seated understanding of human nature, and rightly won Oscars for Best Screenplay and Best Actress - Simone Signoret, who, in the absence of home-grown sex appeal, Clayton had imported to play Alice Aisgill. Room at the Top was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Direction but Clayton lost out to William Wyler and Ben-Hur, though he could be said to have won after a fashion by marrying Ben-Hur's luminous Esther, the lovely Haya Harareet.

It is hard to understand today the dynamic importance of Room at the Top. Given an "X" certificate, and therefore allegedly difficult to market, it was the harbinger of what was to become the British New Wave; and from that film onwards northern towns became the mainstay of the best British cinema. Yet Jack Clayton predated the New Wave and had already spent an unenviable life time working in the bowels of British cinema.

Clayton began, in 1935, as a floor assistant, in his words "one who runs messages for everybody, calls the actors and acts as general dogsbody", for Alexander Korda's London Films, having given up early aspirations to be a speed skater. He worked on a series of prestigious British features, including the first British film in Technicolor, Wings of the Morning (1937), and with many visiting American directors, including Thornton Freeland on Over the Moon (1940) and Tim Whelan on Q Planes (1939). As second assistant director he was responsible for co-ordinating all three shooting units on Korda's The Thief of Baghdad (1940) and also worked with Michael Powell (one of Thief's three directors) on The Spy in Black (1930). Additionally Clayton gained invaluable cutting-room experience assisting the editor and uncredited director David Lean on Major Barbara.

During his wartime service, from 1940 to 1946, Clayton directed, photographed and wrote the Ministry of Information film Naples is a Battlefield, since he was in the RAF Film Unit when the city was liberated. Post-war, he carried out second-unit direction duties on Gordon Parry's Bond Street (1948) and was production manager on Korda's An Ideal Husband (1947) whose sumptuous Technicolor has just been restored by the National Film Archive.

Jack Clayton was by this time very much a man of the industry, and nothing in his immediate post-war credits indicated that he would become one of Britain's finest and most sensitive film directors.

As associate producer he worked on Moulin Rouge (1952) and Beat the Devil (1953) with John Huston, and with the actor Laurence Harvey on both The Good Die Young (1954) and I Am a Camera (1955), all for Romulus Films, and it was Romulus's James and John Woolf who engineered the finance for Room at the Top.

Clayton produced a series of screen farces in 1956, including Three Men in a Boat, also with Laurence Harvey and a notable thriller starring Stewart Granger as a movie producer, The Whole Truth. But immediately before these production ventures he produced and directed The Bespoke Overcoat (1956), an updating of Gogol starring the wonderfully teamed David Kossoff and Alfie Bass, which won a prize at Venice and, more importantly, the Academy Award for Best Short Subject, paving the way for Clayton's directorial feature dbut.

Room at the Top revealed a leading talent. Its style was original, inspired, a blend of expressionism and middle- European sensibility unseen in British cinema. Immaculately cast, it offered Laurence Harvey the star-making role of a lifetime and Heather Sears, with whom Clayton had previously worked on The Story of Esther Costello, a ground-breaking moment in movie censorship as she discusses her post-coital feelings with her lover Joe Lampton. Room at the Top was a difficult movie to follow, certainly from a commercial point of view.

Clayton settled into a pattern in his directing career, a pattern that yielded seven immaculately crafted features over 25 years. The Innocents (1961) was the cinema's finest ever ghost story to date, a subtle reworking of The Turn of the Screw in Cinema-Scope, embellished with the soundtrack (dubbing editor, Peter Musgrave) deliberately calculated to disturb. In The Pumpkin Eater (1964) Clayton elicited magnificent performances and astounding images. Who could ever forget the intercut close ups of James Mason's venal mouth? These were carefully chosen works, brilliantly executed, and when Columbia interfered too much with his adaptation of John le Carr's The Looking Glass War, Clayton walked away from the project, earning a reputation for being difficult.

Our Mother's House (1967) was a clever chamber piece, intimate and sinister, and generated minimal box-office, but next Clayton was offered The Great Gatsby (1974) by Paramount and turned an awkward Francis Ford Coppola screenplay into a fair cinematic approximation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's wondrous novella. If remembered today for little more than its soundtrack and its design, Gatsby looks stunning on the big screen (photography, Douglas Slocombe) and Robert Redford, under Clayton's direction, was particularly and suitably enigmatic in the lead.

Contemporary critics gave the film an unwarranted rough ride and 10 years of inactivity on Clayton's part followed. Clayton next directed an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) for Disney in Hollywood, a stylish and dark movie that totally failed to find its audience and five years later made the barely distributed The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987) with Maggie Smith and an ill-cast Bob Hoskins, which fared similarly at the box-office. Both films were exquisitely acted and directed but the get-rich-quick mood of the 1980s could not embrace their fatalistic subject matter. "I don't believe in being fashionable," Clayton said. "Try to be and you're usually out-of-date before you start."

Also, he might have added, it wasn't in his nature to follow trends; with any number of wide-boy directors emerging from the world of television and advertising commercials, Clayton's care and attention to craft were beginning to look old-fashioned. He was a creative artist fettered by his own good taste, selective in his choice of subjects and totally committed to cinema. "When I am working on a film," he said, "I do not exist other than on the film; I have no private life, so that when the film is finished, it is really like a kind of life finishing." Apt, then, that his last completed work was Memento Mori for television in 1992. Superbly cast, beautifully made, it was yet ultimately cold and uninvolving.

One suspects that Jack Clayton's heart was not really in television. That he made so few features is tragic, and so atypical of the British film industry. Clayton was in all senses a product of that film industry yet remained uncorrupted by it, spending extraordinary amounts of time and care on his own movies, honing script and cutting copy to his own high ideals of perfection. Latter-day auteurists may find themes in his work - the corruption of children and their inevitable loss of innocence or the manipulation of power by sex or even supernatural means - but what distinguishes the cinema of Jack Clayton is an unerring sense of taste, combined with a sophisticated and adult vision of the world and the way it works, plus a sensitive understanding of actors and their capabilities (he was married to three actresses: Christine Nordern, Katherine Kath and Haya Harareet). He possessed attributes that are gradually today becoming unfashionable, which were aligned to a specific sense of cinematic storytelling that is at once the very essence of cinema.

For Jack Clayton Room at the Top was the film that depicted, in his words, "what happened in England when everybody came back from the war". For the rest of us, it was when the cinema grew up.

Tony Sloman

Jack Clayton, film director, born Brighton, Sussex 1 March 1921; married three times; died Slough, Berkshire 25 February 1995.

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