The Man Upstairs (1958)

Director:  Don Chaffey

Starring: Richard Attenborough, Bernard Lee, Donald Houston, Dorothy Alison, Kenneth Griffith, Patricia Jessel, Virginia Maskell, Walter Hudd, Charles Houston, Maureen Connell, Amy Dalby, Alfred Burke, Patrick Jordan

Screenplay:  Alun Falconer, Robert Dunbar and Don Chaffey, based upon a story by Alun Falconer




In the middle of the night, on the top floor of a London boarding-house, John Wilson (Richard Attenborough) wakes from a nightmare-wracked sleep to find his room ice-cold. He is unable to get his gas-meter working, and turns for help to his neighbour across the passage, an artist called Nicholas (Charles Houston). This causes embarrassment, as Nicholas is not alone: Miss Blair (Maureen Connell), his model and companion, urges him to get rid of the intruder, which Nicholas does—although not without a brief scuffle, which wakes Mr Pollen (Kenneth Griffith) on the floor below. Back in his room, the agitated Wilson throws his alarm-clock through the window, shattering the glass; it rings briefly as it hits the ground, in turn waking Mrs Barnes (Dorothy Alison) and her two young children on the ground floor. In a daze, Wilson then wanders down to the second floor, knocking on the door of the elderly Miss Acres (Amy Dalby). This brings her neighbour, Mr Pollen out of his room: he sees that Wilson is ill, and urges him to go back to his room. However, when he places a hand on the other man’s shoulder Wilson lashes out, knocking Pollen down; in the fall he breaks his glasses and cuts the bridge of his nose. Wilson then does retreat to his room; while Pollen calls the police to report the incident, over the dissuasions of both his landlady, Mrs Lawrence (Patricia Jessel), who doesn’t want the police in her house, and Mrs Barnes, who is  worried about Wilson, with whom she is friendly. Given the nature of the incident, the police alert a mental welfare officer, Mr Sanderson (Donald Houston). However, when Wilson emerges from his room the sergeant (Patrick Jordan) approaches him. Wilson becomes increasingly angry and distressed; there is a scuffle, which ends with the sergeant falling down the stairs and being seriously injured; and what started as a minor incident escalates into a siege…

The Man Upstairs is a curious film—a thriller, at its simplest level, and one that plays out more or less in real time, and with a cinéma vérité approach that includes the absence of music on the soundtrack. However, this film is also a rather bleak commentary upon certain aspects of contemporary English society. Its setting, a London boarding-house with its mixture of tenants, of varying backgrounds and temperaments, was by this time a cliché in British film-making; and to an extent (though it is not) The Man Upstairs feels like a filmed play, with lots of set-piece scenes wherein the characters argue their individual positions as the situation upstairs becomes more and more fraught with the possibility of fatal violence.

And it is that very real possibility that makes The Man Upstairs so striking, given the time and place of its production. It is unusual to find a British film of this era that is so critical of the police – it was ahead of its time in that respect – and more unusual still is the nature of the criticisms being made. It is soon clear that whatever danger that Wilson poses to himself and others, it’s nothing compared to the danger posed to him by the police—who, it is soon evident, intend to revenge their injured colleague by pushing Wilson to do something that will give them an excuse to shoot him…

However—that’s easier conceived than done. It is hard to judge at this distance how this would have been received at the time, but throughout The Man Upstairs there’s a thread of what we now tend to view as black comedy with respect to the police getting the wherewithal to kill Wilson. Their actions in this respect are not entirely unjustified, as it emerges that Wilson himself is armed; but it is clear that the police do not want weaponry for self-defence.

BUT—British police did not then and largely do not now carry guns; an armed response is restricted for the most part to certain specialty units. And though the lack of firearms in the possession of the police on the scene of the Wilson incident would have been standard at the time, it is hard to know how to take the scenes in which the inspector called to the scene must send for, and sign for, a single handgun. To modern eyes it all seems rather absurd.

But there’s nothing at all absurd about what they do with that handgun, which is to stand outside John Wilson’s room praying for an opportunity…

At the same time, the note of tacit humour is maintained when the aggressive inspector (Bernard Lee) sends for weapons back-up to the army. A young soldier turns up with requested tear-gas, only to discover that he’s brought the wrong kind: the inspector wanted the kind you lob through the window, while what he’s been given is the kind you have to set off by hand while wearing a gas-mask—and there’s no mask. The Inspector then demands an “American-type anti-riot gun”, only to be told that while the army does have them, legally they’re only for use during overseas military operations, and not on home-soil—against British citizens. The soldier is apologetic, but he’s not budging on that point, despite all the inspector’s furious ranting about, “An emergency.”

The most worry aspect of The Man Upstairs is the increasingly naked intention of the inspector either to kill Wilson outright or drive him to suicide, he doesn’t much mind which. (To this end, he repeatedly prevents anyone trying to talk Wilson out or, when he can’t, limits the interaction to a futile few minutes.) Of course on one level this is understandable: the sergeant is the inspector’s friend and colleague, and for all anyone knows at the time his injuries are fatal. However, as the viewer is aware, the sergeant is to an extent to blame for his own situation: protocol demanded that he wait for the welfare officer, Sanderson, and allow him to speak to Wilson before any other action was taken; in approaching Wilson, the sergeant broke the rules.

But though it saves its most stringent criticisms for the police, The Man Upstairs has the grace not to treat Wilson entirely as an injured innocent—though a full and reasonable explanation for his behaviour is finally provided. Wilson does knock Mr Pollen down, essentially unprovoked (though when he speaks to Mrs Barnes, it is clear he has no memory even of meeting Pollen, let alone hitting him); he is responsible for the sergeant’s fall (though we are not shown the incident in detail, so it isn’t clear who was the aggressor); and he is armed—although the only thing he shoots is the spotlight over the way, which is nearly driving him insane. And he has had outbreaks of violence and shouting, even if most of the early ones, which convinced people something was wrong in the first place, were simply his unavailing struggles with his non-functioning gas-meter. And, as it turns out (and to the inspector’s gloating delight), Wilson does have a record, and he is a wanted man…although not under the name “John Wilson”.

And what exactly has driven Wilson to this point? Well—The Man Upstairs is being considered here, so I guess you know the answer, right?

At the beginning of the film we learn that Wilson is an insomniac who has barely slept for days; the pills he has been prescribed are not working, and even when he does sleep he is wracked by nightmares—or a nightmare. Our first clear hint of his specific situation comes in his first conversation with Mrs Barnes, when we learn that Wilson has been helping the elder Barnes child with his homework. Ignoring both Mrs Barnes’ offer of a doctor and her warning about the police, Wilson urges her to tell Johnny to be careful: “There’s no room for mistakes. He must be trained to check his work, again, and again, and again…”

During this cross-purpose conversation, Mrs Barnes spots a photo of a girl on Wilson’s table, and helps herself to a piece of paper—presumably with contact details on it, as she then phones someone; although we do not know who for some time.

It is when Helen Grey (Virginia Maskell) turns up that we get most of Wilson’s story—or rather, Peter Watson’s story. We learn that he is a scientist; that he was doing government work; that there was terrible accident, during which his colleague, Helen’s brother, was killed, and that Watson himself suffered a head injury; and that while a subsequent inquiry cleared him, Watson was certain the accident was his own fault.

We also learn that it was after all this that Watson’s real problems began—after they tried to force him back to work—and after he was condemned as a coward for refusing…

The Man Upstairs never bothers to spell out what kind of work Watson was involved in. Clearly, by 1958, there was no need: only one branch of scientific research could drive a man to this sort of breakdown…

…all of which makes The Man Upstairs a fascinating companion-piece for Seven Days To Noon, both films dealing with the intolerable personal strain that came with atomic weapons research: something seen clearly enough in real life, where the mental, emotional and moral pressures involved were increased – often beyond the breaking-point of the individual – by the cruel fact that once someone had entered this branch of work, they weren’t allowed out again. In America, as we know, any attempt to escape, or any criticism of the work, was met with accusations of treason; in Britain, we gather, the accusation was rather one of cowardice. The end result tended to be the same.

And here, though in most ways these two British thrillers of the 1950s are so different – the one about a potential catastrophe, playing out all across London; the other a domestic drama about one man’s tragedy, set wholly within a boarding-house – Seven Days To Noon and The Man Upstairs finally come to the same conclusion: that no-one involved in the development of nuclear weapons can reasonably be expected to maintain their sanity.

This entry was posted in Science in the Reel World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Man Upstairs (1958)

  1. RogerBW says:

    This idea reminds me slightly of William Prochnau’s Trinity’s Child (1983), which seems to have as its underlying thesis the idea that anyone involved in any way with nuclear weapons must be a nutter even if they didn’t start that way. (When it was made into By Dawn’s Early Light (1990), there was a lot less pretension and a lot more Rebecca de Mornay.)


    • ronald says:

      Not all that entirely unlike how the eighties assured us that anyone remotely involved in any way shape or form with drug dealing was pure unadulterated evil who deserved to die (and had a good chance of being in league with communists and/or the Middle East). I suppose some people involved in drug dealing are closer to evil than average, but there are levels.


  2. KeithB says:

    I can categorically state that only half of my coworkers are crazy.

    (I work at Sandia National Labs) Now the scientists at Los Alamos, on the other hand…


  3. A first-rate film (and a very good review too, if I may say so). There is music! The frequent chimes of the church clock, foghorns from the river and the laborious grinding sounds of the fire engine’s ladder mechanism – and a few other suchlike background noises. It is curious how the face of the Kenneth Griffith’s Mr Pollen, a clerk, and that of Richard Attenborough’s John Wilson/Peter Watson, the man upstairs, are, in the film, so alike (so much so that I thought Attenborough was playing both rôles – I missed the beginning of the film). Does this suggest the cautious and obedient clerk in fact is the equally cautious and obedient scientist and would have broken down identically had he been subjected to the same pressure at work, the same orders; that the inward lunatic in the intensely constrained Pollen was outwardly mirrored in Wilson/Watson. Unless I missed him (I was looking for him), Pollen was conspicuous for his absence during the dramatic ending of the drama, all of the other tenants present. Generally, the characters in this film were played in a raw and unaffected way, which I found pleasantly refreshing, especially Dorothy Alison’s Mrs Barnes. Many thanks to this blog for giving the film the detailed attention it deserves.


    • lyzmadness says:

      Thank you, much appreciated!

      Interesting thoughts! Pollen does finally agree (or is bullied into) supporting the rest when they try to get between Watson and the police, but when they are headed off and only Mrs Barnes is allowed to proceed, he fades out again. (The others are forced back downstairs anyway.)

      What always strikes me, another piece of indirect criticism of the society being depicted, is that when Mrs Barnes is pressed to explain why she’s so determined to defend Watson, all she can find to reply is that he was civil to her…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.