The Small Back Room [DVD]
Director : Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Screenplay : Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Nigel Balchin)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1949
Stars : David Farrar (Sammy Rice), Kathleen Byron (Susan), Jack Hawkins (R.B. Waring), Milton Rosmer (Prof. Mair), Cyril Cusack (Cpl. Taylor), Emrys Jones (Joe), Michael Goodliffe (Till), Sidney James (“Knucksie” Moran), Leslie Banks (Col. A.K. Holland), Michael Gough (Capt. Dick Stuart), Geoffrey Keen (Pinker), June Elvin (Gillian), David Hutcheson (Norval)
Especially when compared with the opulent Technicolor melodramas that preceded it--Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), as well as the aesthetically daring fantasy A Matter of Life and Death (1947)--Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Small Back Room seems positively tiny. Shot in the chiaroscuro black-and-whites of film noir and restricted, until its climax, to a series of small, relatively claustrophobic rooms in wartime London, it is the visual and thematic antithesis of the Archers’ most beloved films from the 1940s. With its focus on psychological distress, physical ailment, and desperate relationships, we can see the film as the gateway to the path that would lead Powell into directing Peeping Tom (1960), his now celebrated but then reviled portrait of a murderous psychopath.
Based on the novel by Nigel Balchin, The Small Back Room takes place in London in 1943, a literally dark time of constant blackouts and bomb raids. The Germans have started dropping booby-trapped bombs into the English countryside where the primary victims are children, and the military turns to Sammy Rice (David Farrar), a research scientist whose expertise is in bomb disposal. However, Sammy is also a bitter and cynical alcoholic who is only barely hanging on to his life (when we first meet him, he is in a pub, and despite the movie-star close-up that Farrar gets upon his introduction, we quickly sense just how despondent he is). Sammy’s psychological damage is externalized via a missing leg, which has been replaced with a “tin leg” that is constantly causing him pain that neither doctor-prescribed “dope” nor alcohol can fully soothe. His constant kicking at the painful prosthetic appendage is a visual reminder that he is never at ease.
While Sammy frequently turns to the bottle for solace, his real lifeline is Susan (Kathleen Byron), the secretary for the military unit in which he works. They have a romantic relationship that is complicated both personally and professional. While Susan technically lives across the hall from Sammy’s flat, they are always sharing the same space (in Balchin’s novel, they live together, but British censorship at the time couldn’t allow such living in sin on the big screen). Susan is kind and loving and, most importantly, patient, an absolute requirement for dealing with someone like Sammy, who is constantly on the edge. The exact nature of Sammy’s problems (and how he lost that leg) is never made clear, although the ambiguity adds to his intrinsic fascination; if everything about him were to be explained, he might just be a sadsack, with all sense of mystery lost.
Much of The Small Back Room operates on the interpersonal level, alternating between Sammy and Susan’s complex romantic travails and Sammy’s work with his military unit. Although bitter and angry, Sammy is also brutally honest, which we see in a subplot involving a flawed machine gun his unit is trying to foist on the military brass. When Sammy realizes that using such an ineffective gun might cost human lives, he can’t help but disagree with his superiors. You might describe Sammy as brave, but his bravery comes from the same pit of nothing to lose from which traditional film noir protagonists draw their muster. This is crucial when the film builds to its climax, which breaks from all the dark, claustrophobic interiors into the scalding sunshine of a beach where one of the German booby-trapped bombs has been discovered. Knowing that one expert has already met his demise trying to dismantle one, Sammy sets about trying to defuse the weapon in a crackerjack 17-minute sequence that would have made Hitchcock proud. Without recourse to suspenseful music, Powell and Pressburger deliver a nail-biting scenario scored to the sound of wind and surf that at any moment could spell disaster.
As good as this final sequence is, other parts of The Small Back Room don’t work quite as well. Although the film was a clearly self-conscious detour toward realism for Powell and Pressburger, they couldn’t help but add at least one fantastical flourish in the form of a fevered dream sequence in which Sammy, trying to fight off his alcoholic demons and under the misperception that Susan has left him, imagines himself in a surreal dreamworld of ticking clocks and a gigantic whiskey bottle. It’s not that visualizing Sammy’s internal turmoil is an inherently bad idea, but the literalism of the sequence makes it very nearly absurd when it should be emotionally traumatic. Thankfully, this interlude is a brief misstep in an otherwise fine film. Despite its being considered a “minor” Powell and Pressburger film, The Small Back Room works because it takes advantage of its smaller scope, focusing us inward on a character who is instantly memorable even as he draws on so many familiar movie characters who have populated dark alleys and dim offices, brooding over their losses and failures.
|The Small Back Room Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||August 19, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion’s new high-definition transfer of The Small Back Room was taken from the British Film Institute National Archive’s restored 35mm fine-grain master positive and then further cleaned up with the MTI Digital Restoration System. The result is a beautiful image that has no signs of dirt or damage. Black levels, which are extremely important in a film this dark, are spot on, with excellent shadow detail and contrast. The only complaint would be that Criterion has again windowboxed the image. The monaural soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print and digitally restored, sounds fine throughout.|
|Criterion’s disc includes a wonderfully informative screen-specific audio commentary by film scholar Charles Barr, whose wide-ranging knowledge and familiarity with Powell and Pressburger make this track essential listening for anyone wanting a deeper appreciation of this often neglected film. Barr offers a great deal of background production information and also points out some interesting technical aspects of the film, including a rear-projection shot that I never would have spotted otherwise. Also included are a 20-minute video interview with cinematographer Christopher Challis, who reminisces about his long career and his work on several Powell and Pressburger films, and more than 50 minutes of excerpts from Michael Powell’s audio dictations for his autobiography.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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