Obscurity can offer rewards to the adventurous; I was completely unaware of this untypical film from the Hammer imprint circa 1973. Not horror at all, this is a spin-off from a Tv show, Man at The Top, which featured characters from the play and film Room at the Top and Life at the Top. Room at the Top was one of the fore-runners of kitchen sink drama and the ‘angry young men’ of the 1960’s, but multiple spin-offs took the franchise in a different direction, and Mike Vardy’s film is much less concerned with kitchen sinks that with the upper-classes; this is an Aga saga, with foxes, hounds, diaphanous negligees and plenty of “Dammit Marjorie’ dialogue through clenched teeth.
Co-written by John Junkin, Man at the Top sees anti-hero Joe Lampton (Kenneth Haigh) take a cushy executive role at a big Pharma company, only to find he’s been stitched up on the grounds of class. His predecessor blew his brains out in a public park, and with good reason; the company’s vaccine has not been property tested, and those seeking immunisation now face birth defects, a reflection on the Thalidomide scandal of the time. Much like Tom Cruise in The Firm, Lampton has to figure out how to save himself while not alerting his bosses to his growing suspicions that he’s the potential fall-guy that the whole scandal will be blamed on; insert your own Mike Pence comparison here.
Haigh is great as Lampton, an arriveste in the manner of Mick Travis in O Lucky Man, full of wide-boy insouciance, but also angry at the way that class division has thwarted his aspirations. He’s up against ideal foils in Harry Andrews as his boss, and Nanette Newman as one of his man conquests; her nude double is painfully obvious in the various sex scenes which producers presumably felt might draw an audience to the cinema to see a serious-minded film like this.
Man at the Top has been re-issued by Network Video, and with some reason; it’s a sharp, acerbic look at the darker side of business, and the vaccine conspiracy angle is uncomfortably prescient in 2020. With a swinging Roy Budd score to boot, this is worth exhuming if you like British films of the 1970’s; the public might not have turned out to see Man at the Top, but it’s well worth a look back in anger, or nostalgia for a time never known.