Home Video Reviews
The film has a curious yet clever structure. After introducing the audience to the bomb plot by having an Army captain (Michael Gough) seek Sammy out and tell him to be ready on a moment's notice to travel to wherever a bomb might be found, the movie does not mention bombs again for about thirty minutes of screen time. Meanwhile, the other story - really the main story - develops, that of Sammy's anguished existence and his relationship with Susan. We are made to care quite deeply about this couple, and indeed, despite the wartime setting, the talk of things military, and a climactic suspense sequence, The Small Back Room is really a love story.
Director Michael Powell himself described it as such. He also called it "the story of a dying man who discovers a reason to live." Perhaps inevitably, with so much going on in one movie, The Small Back Room is quite a mix visually. There are sequences that resemble American film noir; there are military scenes with artillery going off; there are intense love scenes, a strong suspense sequence, and even an expressionistic hallucination segment that looks like something out of Spellbound (1945).
The mixture, while popular with critics, didn't work at the box office, where The Small Back Room was a dud. Powell blamed this on the film's timing. He and Pressburger had originally wanted to make it right after WWII, but it didn't come together until after the duo had finished The Red Shoes (1948). After that and their other recent films, Black Narcissus (1947) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Powell felt the need to "escape from romance into reality" and do a smaller, grittier story.
"We were so full of ourselves at the time," Powell recalled in 1985, "that I think we thought too much about ourselves and not enough about the audience. The Small Back Room was a very good film but it was a war film, and the war was just over and people had had enough of the bloody war. Particularly in England where there was all sorts of hardship." In his memoir, Powell was even more blunt: "The public stayed away in droves. They refused to accept that it was a love story. It was a war film. And war films were out -- O-U-T."
Nonetheless, the picture remained one of Powell's personal favorites, and time has been very kind to it. It plays today as an exceptionally mature, adult drama, quite beautifully written and visually well-crafted, with many moments of storytelling that border on the lyrical despite the film's seriousness. Take the moment, for example, in which Sammy gets the phone call informing him that a bomb has been found on a rocky beach. Powell dissolves to a shot of the beach which shows us the bomb being guarded by a lone soldier. We think, naturally, that we have moved on to the next scene, but then Powell dissolves back to Sammy on the phone, finishing his conversation. Instead of making the audience hear dialogue explaining that the bomb has been found, the movie shows us that it has been found and also where it lies. We simply see what Sammy visualizes from what he is being told. This has the effect of making the bomb seem real, threatening, dangerous... it makes the force of its danger visceral and heightens the audience's investment in what is at stake. All this in a simple dissolve sequence that lasts only seconds! This kind of approach to movie storytelling almost never happens today.
Powell was very proud of the climactic bomb-defusing sequence. It was actually the single scene that made him want so much to adapt Nigel Balchin's novel, and indeed, Powell and Pressburger milk it for a great deal of suspense. "Seventeen minutes must be the longest time that an audience can hold its breath," wrote Powell of the finished sequence (though in reality it actually lasts more like 12 minutes).
The other famous scene here is the "whisky bottle sequence," the aforementioned hallucination scene. Powell goes all out, filming Farrar being overwhelmed by a 15-foot-high bottle and visualizing rows of ticking clocks. One could argue it's a bit out of place in this film, but it does serve well to illustrate just how deeply troubled Farrar is. The scene was heavily criticized by British critics when the movie was released. They thought it too Germanic, too vulgar, and not in keeping with the British tradition. It was not the first time Powell and Pressburger would upset with the critics, nor would it be the last. It just came with the territory for these visionary artists.
David Farrar and Kathleen Byron, both Powell/Pressburger regulars, are superb here, giving their relationship an intense quality of realism. Byron had just done a memorable turn in Black Narcissus, a role totally different in every way. Of Byron, Powell later wrote, "She had a strange beauty that flared and faded while you watched... Kathleen is a close-up girl. Like Myrna Loy, the luminous intelligence with which her eyes and mouth were endowed transcended the substance of her scenes with Jack Hawkins and David Farrar."
Other standouts in the British cast: Anthony Bushell as Col. Strang, who oversees the bomb defusing, Cyril Cusack as a stuttering researcher with domestic problems, Robert Morley in a hilarious unbilled cameo as bumbling defense minister, and Bryan Forbes in his film debut as a dying gunner. He'd go on to more acting roles but made his biggest mark as a writer and director. (He was later nominated for a screenplay Oscar for The Angry Silence .)
The Small Back Room may be quite different from the better-known Powell-Pressburger masterworks, but it builds into a rich, rewarding experience that pays off emotionally. Criterion's DVD, featuring a high-definition digital transfer, looks very good despite a few moments of scratchiness. Criterion has included a good, informative commentary track with film historian Charles Barr, audio excerpts of Michael Powell's dictations for his autobiography, and a written booklet by Nick James. There's also a fantastically interesting half-hour interview with the film's cinematographer Chris Challis, who is now 89 and speaks of Powell and Pressburger as well as other filmmakers he's worked with (including Billy Wilder). Challis is lucid, articulate and full of wonderful insights and remembrances.
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by Jeremy Arnold