Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1949
Starring: David Farrar, Kathleen Byron
A group of British scientist work in a cramped room in London. Sammy Rice, one of the specialists, is bitter because he’s in constant pain from an undisclosed injury that cost him part of his leg, and because he feels the scientific office is being mismanaged. Alcohol is his only balm, though his girlfriend Susan, who works as a secretary in the same office, tolerates his behavior and tries to encourage him to solve the latest problem. Small bombs are being dropped by the Nazis that are disguised as innocent every-day items. Four people, including some children, have been killed. After Susan leaves Sammy and he is at rock bottom, he’s called upon to diffuse one of the bombs, risking his own life in the process.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known as the Archers, made 24 films together in the joint roles of director, writer, and producer for a dual career that lasted nearly 30 years. The Small Back Room marks their return to producer Alexander Korda after their previous film, the colorful and tragic The Red Shoes. The Small Back Room is its opposite in nearly every way. Though the former has become one of their most powerful masterpieces, the studio they worked under, the Rank Organisation, was convinced it was a failure. This sense of bitterness was clearly transferred to the tense, nihilistic, black-and-white The Small Back Room, one of their only films that can be considered a psychological drama.
Based on the novel of the same name by Nigel Balchin, The Small Back Room didn’t perform well at the box office simply because audiences didn’t want another war film when it loomed so large in their memories. However, by making the film after the war ended, Powell and Pressburger were able to make a statement about wartime life without government interference and the pressure to make a propaganda piece. The film brilliantly portrays the frustration — and even evil — of bureaucracy through the character of Waring, most interested in political games and the rise of his own career than he is in the lives of British men and women. Jack Hawkins (Lawrence of Arabia) is solid as the unlikable Waring, a misogynistic, classist, and amoral man, one who could easily stand-in for a studio executive as a military figure.
However, it is Kathleen Byron and David Farrar that make the film as Sammy and Susan. They have excellent chemistry together and a sense of familiarity that does wonders for their characters. Both actors also appeared in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947) and Byron’s offscreen relationship with Powell was also a contributing factor in her divorce. The camera certainly loves her here. The way Susan’s constant presence in Sammy’s flat is justified is that she lives across the hall, a clever device meant to get around the censors. Susan inexplicably puts up with a lot from Sammy — in many ways, he’s unlikable. He complains without striving for change, is stagnant, bitter, and grumpy.
Due to his missing leg and constant suffering, there is the sense that he’s a martyr in some way. He perfectly conveys the sense of anxiety and paranoia in the film and there’s a wonderful, hallucinatory scene where Sammy seems to experience delirium tremens, likely influenced by Billy Wilder’s The Long Weekend. It is one of the film’s most powerful moments and is a fine example of Christopher Challis’ German expressionist-influenced cinematography. The small spaces that populate the film are made darker and more threatening as Sammy attempts to battle his inner demons, but fails. Later, there is a parallel sequence set up in the anxiety-inducing conclusion. In this dazzling sequence, Sammy has to diffuse one of the bombs on an isolated beach. The camera switches between a desolate, chilling setting and claustrophobic closeups of Sammy’s sweaty face. There is the visual implication that the bomb — and the thrill and the danger it provides — is a stand in or potential replacement for the whiskey bottle. The experience of diffusing it certainly represents a gauntlet that Sammy passes through successfully. After which he is promoted and reunites with Susan.
The Small Back Room may be an understated, quiet gem without the splendor that generally accompanied Powell and Pressburger’s films, but it comes highly recommended. Fortunately available from Criterion, it was released as Hour of Glory in the U.S. Keep your eyes out for some great supporting performances, particularly from Michael Gough (Batman) as Captain Stuart and Cyril Cusack (Harold and Maude) as Corporal Taylor, a man shaking and stuttering with anxiety. An example of one of the film’s moments of pathos and desperation, he passionately loves his wife, though everyone knows she is two-timing him behind his back. Film noir fans will also want to take note that this is a rare British noir effort to feature that staple of late ‘40s and ‘50s noir/crime cinema in the U.S.: the jazz night club sequence.