It’s rather interesting to note that while American audiences were intrigued by dark tales of double-crossing (namely through film noir flicks), social ills, and returning vets re-integrating themselves into civilian life after the horrors of WWII (Best Years of Our Lives), the Brits apparently wanted escapism rather than frank and provocative dramas critical of wartime military and governmental procedures.
That seems to be the reasoning by film scholar Charles Barr as to why one of the most postwar mature films set during the war was a great big dud in theatres. According to Barr, in spite of some decent critical reviews, the public at large wasn’t particularly interested in revisiting the tension and grimness of the war, and co-director Michael Powell seemed to blame the film’s failure on key aspects, like the casting of David Farrar as bomb expert Sammy Rice.
And yet that particular regard towards Farrar was dead wrong, because long before the actor moved to Hollywood and squandered his skills in stilted fodder like 300 Spartans (1962), Farrar was capable of enlivening a complex male character such as Sammy Rice, a man who thrives in the high risk field of munitions while battling demons of male inadequacy, and a cocktail of self-loathing, drugs, and alcohol.
Co-director and co-writer Emeric Pressburger also made sure the film retained much of Nigel Balchin’s novel in spite of censorship rules and the conservative whims of the studio. Even though Sammy’s squeeze Susan (Kathleen Byron) claims to live across the hall, it’s plain she’s cohabiting with Sammy outside of wedlock (as in the novel), and having a codependent relationship that seems to ensure she too will remain as miserable as Sammy.
Even worse is the fact the couple also work in the same corner division of the military: he’s the unambitious civilian hired to research and field test munitions, and she’s the secretary forced to entertain every condescending demand or grin from wanker section head R.B. Waring (a young and giddy Jack Hawkins, who devours his coworkers’ joy like carnivorous snake).
What’s astonishing is how mature Sammy and Susan’s emotional and sexual relationship is presented onscreen; Powell and Pressburger wrote very clean prose (some borrowed from the novel) and spend a great deal of time balancing Sammy’s field skills with scenes of personal troubles and his relationships with superiors and colleagues; he’s flawed, brilliant, useless without Susan, and a bastard, and watching him progress through a realistic minefield of departmental politics as well as a genuine desire to stop the larding of German bombs on the British shores ensures the man seen at the film’s beginning goes through several internal changes that at times differ from the novel, but still make for a gripping drama that feels immensely modern.
Powell and Pressburger’s mix of German expressionism during a key nightmare sequence packs a punch because Sammy’s stability is so badly fractured; when Susan fails to return on time to spend the evening with Sammy, there’s only so much he can do before the destructive lure of an untouched bottle of whiskey taunts him, and weakens his resistance to the drink.
That sequence is contrasted by the film’s subtle docu-drama style; unlike the directors’ prior film, The Red Shoes (1948), The Small Back Room was shot in brooding black & white, and features barely any music score. The characters are firmly rooted in WWII realities, and one never doubts their sullen visages are tied to the dangers of ongoing Nazi aggression.
Also of note is a beautifully shot and edited sequence involving the testing of a gun at Stonehenge, as well as the finale where Sammy must disarm a thermos-sized bomb after a colleague failed earlier. The drama’s power begins with a simple transcription reading by a radio assistant who stayed in contact with Sammy’s colleague seconds before the explosion, and Sammy’s own attempts to disarm the cleverly built bomb thereafter.
The Small Back Room was shown uncut in Canada (via TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies) with its provocative dialogue and the booze nightmare intact, and it’s simply thrilling to see the film released by Criterion in a clean transfer featuring excellent greys and a solid mono mix, with the fine sound design in the original audio track, as well as Brian Easedale’s eerie score cuts.
Barr’s commentary track covers the film’s production, as well as the directors’ relationship with the studio, differences between the novel and film, a few similarities with the directors’ The Life and Death if Colonel Blimp (1943), and actor and career highlights.
The film is also of note for a number of early appearances by soon-to-be British mainstays, including Bryan Forbes (The League of Gentlemen) in his first screen role, Michael Gough, long before his horror years; Cyril Cusack (Fahrenheit 451) as Sammy’s brilliant but troubled co-worker Corporal Taylor, and pre-Bond films Geoffrey Keen (Sir Frederick Gray) as a dry government bureaucrat. (Keen’s scene with Farrar is another highlight, and a fine example of performances and sharp dialogue propelling an otherwise single-shot scene involving two men eating in a snotty restaurant.)
Byron had appeared in Powell and Pressburger’s The Silver Fleet (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and Black Narcissus (1947) with Farrar; and Leslie Banks (playing Colonel A.K. Holland) had previously starred in Powell’s B- thriller Red Ensign (1934).
As with Criterion’s Thief of Bagdad (1940) DVD, there’s also excerpts from Powell’s dictations for his autobiography, a video interview with cinematographer Christopher Challis, and a booklet essay by film critic Nick James.
Other film versions of Nigel Balchin’s novels include Mine Own Executioner (1947), the moving drama Mandy / Crash of Silence (1952), Malta Story (1953), and The Man Who Never Was (1956).
The Small Back Room is by no means a minor work nor failure, and mandatory for anyone intrigued by mature, postwar British cinema.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan