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THE SMALL BACK ROOM

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Milton Rosmer, Cyril Cusack, Michael Gough
Directors:  Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  107 Minutes
Release Date:  August 19, 2008

“Nothing like taking a nice, quiet bomb apart to steady the nerves.”

Film ***

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were nothing if not unpredictable.  Who would have imagined that on the heels of their fantastic Technicolor triumph The Red Shoes they would make their next film a gritty, claustrophobic, black and white film about the war?

And not really about the war, mind you…there are no battles waged, no beaches stormed, no dogfights breaking apart the sky in The Small Back Room.  In fact, the only weapon fired is a rather dubious new anti-tank gun being demonstrated against a prop tank that doesn’t even move.

It stars David Farrar as Sammy Rice, a boozing research scientist and bomb disposal expert who works behind the scenes.  He lost a leg once, and now wears a tin one that causes him constant pain; his only relief seems to be from drink.  Those around him, like his love Susan (Byron) and even his own bartender, allow him beer, but deny him whiskey.

Rice is expected to advise on the feasibility of the new weapon, but in the meantime, Captain Dick Stuart (Gough) approaches him with a more suitable problem:  Germany has been dropping some sort of booby trap shell on England.  It lands without exploding, and only seems to go off when someone picks it up.  What exactly is it, and can it be defeated?

The small back room of the title seems to refer to the out of the way places where Rice works; alone, in near darkness, and away from the bustle of office activity.  It might also refer to his state of mind.  As Michael Powell did so vividly later on with Peeping Tom, the dark tight spaces seem to reflect what’s going on in Rice’s head, especially as his desire for drink causes bizarre hallucinations.  It’s no wonder that we finally see him at his best when he’s in broad daylight, attempting to difuse a bomb in a solidly suspenseful sequence.

The Small Back Room also marked the parting of ways of Powell and Pressburger, aka The Archers, with their producer J. Arthur Rank.  Their collaboration had been fruitful but strained, and it was probably no coincidence that for their first film away from Rank, they opted for something much smaller and more easily contained than what their reputations had been demonstrating.

David Farrar and Kathleen Byron, who both teamed up previously on Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, both do amazing jobs of bringing out the depth, vulnerability and humor in these characters.  Their chemistry helps anchor the somewhat episodic storyline and grounds it in humanity for the audiences.

After the likes of Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, The Small Back Room feels almost like a chamber drama, but it proved The Archers’ mastery of multiple genres and styles.  Whether expanding or contracting the canvas, they showed an ability to bring a singular vision to any project they touched, and carved a niche for themselves in British cinema history as a result.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Robert Morley plays the Minister, though in the credits he's billed as "a guest".

Video ***

This is a very nice transfer given the age of the film.  Sixty years seem to melt away quite nicely under Criterion’s loving restoration efforts, which helps keep the specks and debris on the print to a minimum, while increasing the contrast and detail level throughout.

Audio **

The mono soundtrack is perfectly serviceable…it doesn’t offer a lot of dynamic range, but none is required.  Dialogue is cleanly rendered, and background noise is extremely minimal.

Features ***

There is a terrific commentary from scholar Charles Barr that offers plenty of insights into the film and the works of The Archers, along with excerpts from Michael Powell’s audio notes for his autobiography regarding the making of the movie, and a new video interview with director of photography Chris Challis.  A booklet contains more essays and photos for you to peruse.

Summary:

The Small Back Room is hardly a step back for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who managed to give an intimate character study a proper sense of urgency, and managed to tell a war story without showing us any war.  It doesn’t quite rank with some of their finest works, but still serves as an exemplary transition movie for two of Britain’s most renowned filmmakers.

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