Hour of Glory


1949

Synopsis

Film Details

Also Known As
Small Back Room
Release Date
1949

Articles

Hour of Glory


The British filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, longtime collaborators who jointly signed their films under the name The Archers, should have been at the top of the industry after completing The Red Shoes (1948). The glorious Technicolor epic of dance, music, art, and passion went on to win two Oscars and was voted one of the greatest British films of all time in a 1998 poll, but in 1948 The Rank Organization couldn't see the film's potential and decided to part ways with The Archers. Powell and Pressburger took up an offer to return to Alexander Korda's London Films, where they were promised complete artistic freedom. Their first film for Korda couldn't have been more different from the big, romantic, sweeping Technicolor films they had become famous for.

Based on a novel by Nigel Balchin, The Small Back Room (retitled Hour of Glory in the U.S.) is wartime drama about a bitter scientist battling self-pity (he has a "tin foot," which he noisily knocks when it aches), alcoholism, and a disgust for the way his boss is pushing a new artillery gun on the military that is far from ready. He's one of the "back room boys," part of a special weapons research unit out of the public eye, and as he struggles with his eroding sense of self-worth, he's called upon by the military to help them combat insidious explosive devices dropped from German bombers that have already killed three children.

For the roles of Sammy Rice, the handsome but self-loathing scientist, and his lover Susan, who is also the secretary of his boss, they cast David Farrar and Kathleen Byron, both stars of the earlier Black Narcissus (1947). The two suggest an intimacy that the film can't directly acknowledge. Jack Hawkins, a respected stage actor on his way to becoming a major British movie star, was cast as Sammy's glad-handing boss, a charismatic, forceful salesman to Sammy's serious man of science, Michael Gough (who went on to play Alfred the Butler in four Batman films) is the British officer who recruits Sammy to help him with the booby-trapped bombs, and Cyril Cusack made his first of many appearances as an Archers regular as the stuttering fuse expert. The stutter was Cusack's idea, which Powell immediately embraced, along with the actor himself. Future director Bryan Forbes made his screen debut as a soldier mortally wounded by one of the insidious bombs.

Though they shared billing on screen, Powell and Pressburger divided their duties: Powell was the director, Pressburger the screenwriter, and they shared producing duties. Powell directs in a more realistic style than films like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, creating a wartime London drenched in shadows with crowded nightclubs, and cramped apartments: A World War II noir where the enemy is within. But his use of distinctive locations (a gun test set against the backdrop of Stonehenge, for instance) gives the film a visual dynamism, and for one sequence he delves into overtly expressionist images to suggest the psychological state of Sammy as he waits for Susan to return. As the clock ticks and his mind drifts to the unopened bottle of whisky on the table--kept in plain sight to remind himself of his weakness--the rest of the room falls away as both the clock and the bottle become larger and larger, eventually dwarfing him on the screen as the ticking takes over the soundtrack. The effects were created entirely on the set, with props and models constructed by Hein Heckroth and slashes of theatrical lighting devised by cinematographer Christopher Challis to accentuate and isolate details. For some effects, Challis used a split screen to create even greater contrasts. It's a striking and imaginative sequence that ranks with Salvador Dali's work on Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) as a creative approach to visualizing interior struggles.

For the climax, where Sammy is called to defuse one of the German booby traps found intact on a beach, Powell takes a far more realistic approach, creating tension through crisp cutting and composition. "I think that was one of the most marvelous sequences ever," remarked cinematographer Christopher Challis in an interview years later. "Now that was entirely Micky [Michael Powell] - the idea of getting closer and closer as the sequence became more tense until you ended up with just fingernails and eyes and bits of bomb screws." In the novel, the scene played out on a familiar sandy beach but Powell saw the dramatic possibilities of the pebble beach at Chesil Bank, as he wrote in his autobiography: "I saw at once the great curve of the Chesil Bank, the waves listlessly breaking on the beach and grinding the pebbles as the undertow retreated, the sinister shape of the bomb, upright in the pebbles like a giant Thermos flask, the bank itself, where every footstep sent a thousand pebbles rolling." It adds a volatile dimension to an already tense situation.

The film was well reviewed (News of the World called it "Magnificent picture making") but poorly attended, which Powell attributed to the public's exhaustion with the war. "The setting was wartime London and everyone had had enough of that, which I might have suspected had I not been such a fervent admirer of Nigel's book." Powell's more vivacious and flamboyant--emotionally and visually--films are more famous than the intimate and intense The Small Back Room but it remains a powerful drama and a provocative mix of war drama and film noir.

Sources:
Arrows of Desire, Ian Christie. Faber and Faber, 1994.
"On The Small Back Room," Raymond Durgnat. Powell, Pressburger and Others, ed. Ian Christie, BFI, 1978.
Michael Powell, James Howard. Butler and Tanner, 1996.
Million Dollar Movie, Michael Powell. Random House, 1992.
IMDb

By Sean Axmaker
Hour Of Glory

Hour of Glory

The British filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, longtime collaborators who jointly signed their films under the name The Archers, should have been at the top of the industry after completing The Red Shoes (1948). The glorious Technicolor epic of dance, music, art, and passion went on to win two Oscars and was voted one of the greatest British films of all time in a 1998 poll, but in 1948 The Rank Organization couldn't see the film's potential and decided to part ways with The Archers. Powell and Pressburger took up an offer to return to Alexander Korda's London Films, where they were promised complete artistic freedom. Their first film for Korda couldn't have been more different from the big, romantic, sweeping Technicolor films they had become famous for. Based on a novel by Nigel Balchin, The Small Back Room (retitled Hour of Glory in the U.S.) is wartime drama about a bitter scientist battling self-pity (he has a "tin foot," which he noisily knocks when it aches), alcoholism, and a disgust for the way his boss is pushing a new artillery gun on the military that is far from ready. He's one of the "back room boys," part of a special weapons research unit out of the public eye, and as he struggles with his eroding sense of self-worth, he's called upon by the military to help them combat insidious explosive devices dropped from German bombers that have already killed three children. For the roles of Sammy Rice, the handsome but self-loathing scientist, and his lover Susan, who is also the secretary of his boss, they cast David Farrar and Kathleen Byron, both stars of the earlier Black Narcissus (1947). The two suggest an intimacy that the film can't directly acknowledge. Jack Hawkins, a respected stage actor on his way to becoming a major British movie star, was cast as Sammy's glad-handing boss, a charismatic, forceful salesman to Sammy's serious man of science, Michael Gough (who went on to play Alfred the Butler in four Batman films) is the British officer who recruits Sammy to help him with the booby-trapped bombs, and Cyril Cusack made his first of many appearances as an Archers regular as the stuttering fuse expert. The stutter was Cusack's idea, which Powell immediately embraced, along with the actor himself. Future director Bryan Forbes made his screen debut as a soldier mortally wounded by one of the insidious bombs. Though they shared billing on screen, Powell and Pressburger divided their duties: Powell was the director, Pressburger the screenwriter, and they shared producing duties. Powell directs in a more realistic style than films like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, creating a wartime London drenched in shadows with crowded nightclubs, and cramped apartments: A World War II noir where the enemy is within. But his use of distinctive locations (a gun test set against the backdrop of Stonehenge, for instance) gives the film a visual dynamism, and for one sequence he delves into overtly expressionist images to suggest the psychological state of Sammy as he waits for Susan to return. As the clock ticks and his mind drifts to the unopened bottle of whisky on the table--kept in plain sight to remind himself of his weakness--the rest of the room falls away as both the clock and the bottle become larger and larger, eventually dwarfing him on the screen as the ticking takes over the soundtrack. The effects were created entirely on the set, with props and models constructed by Hein Heckroth and slashes of theatrical lighting devised by cinematographer Christopher Challis to accentuate and isolate details. For some effects, Challis used a split screen to create even greater contrasts. It's a striking and imaginative sequence that ranks with Salvador Dali's work on Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) as a creative approach to visualizing interior struggles. For the climax, where Sammy is called to defuse one of the German booby traps found intact on a beach, Powell takes a far more realistic approach, creating tension through crisp cutting and composition. "I think that was one of the most marvelous sequences ever," remarked cinematographer Christopher Challis in an interview years later. "Now that was entirely Micky [Michael Powell] - the idea of getting closer and closer as the sequence became more tense until you ended up with just fingernails and eyes and bits of bomb screws." In the novel, the scene played out on a familiar sandy beach but Powell saw the dramatic possibilities of the pebble beach at Chesil Bank, as he wrote in his autobiography: "I saw at once the great curve of the Chesil Bank, the waves listlessly breaking on the beach and grinding the pebbles as the undertow retreated, the sinister shape of the bomb, upright in the pebbles like a giant Thermos flask, the bank itself, where every footstep sent a thousand pebbles rolling." It adds a volatile dimension to an already tense situation. The film was well reviewed (News of the World called it "Magnificent picture making") but poorly attended, which Powell attributed to the public's exhaustion with the war. "The setting was wartime London and everyone had had enough of that, which I might have suspected had I not been such a fervent admirer of Nigel's book." Powell's more vivacious and flamboyant--emotionally and visually--films are more famous than the intimate and intense The Small Back Room but it remains a powerful drama and a provocative mix of war drama and film noir. Sources: Arrows of Desire, Ian Christie. Faber and Faber, 1994. "On The Small Back Room," Raymond Durgnat. Powell, Pressburger and Others, ed. Ian Christie, BFI, 1978. Michael Powell, James Howard. Butler and Tanner, 1996. Million Dollar Movie, Michael Powell. Random House, 1992. IMDb By Sean Axmaker

The Small Back Room - Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's Rarely Seen 1949 Drama THE SMALL BACK ROOM on DVD


There are two stories in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Small Back Room (1949). First is the story of a particularly nasty type of German bomb which keeps being dropped on the British homeland during WWII. It explodes only when picked up off the ground, usually by children, and the British military is desperately trying to find a live, untouched specimen so they can defuse it and learn how it works. Then there's the story of Sammy Rice (David Farrar), a so-called "back-room boy," a military research scientist who is unable to serve in combat because of a tin foot. A self-loathing creature with a serious drinking problem, Sammy hates being stuck in London and forced to deal with the bureaucrats of the military and political establishment. And despite being in a relationship with the beautiful and intelligent Susan (Kathleen Byron), a secretary at his research facility, Sammy thinks she stays with him more out of pity than love. The two stories come together when Sammy - who seemingly wants to die - finds himself the one who will have to defuse the bomb.

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 [1960].)

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.

For more information about The Small Back Room, visit The Criterion Collection.To order The Small Back Room, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold

The Small Back Room - Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's Rarely Seen 1949 Drama THE SMALL BACK ROOM on DVD

There are two stories in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Small Back Room (1949). First is the story of a particularly nasty type of German bomb which keeps being dropped on the British homeland during WWII. It explodes only when picked up off the ground, usually by children, and the British military is desperately trying to find a live, untouched specimen so they can defuse it and learn how it works. Then there's the story of Sammy Rice (David Farrar), a so-called "back-room boy," a military research scientist who is unable to serve in combat because of a tin foot. A self-loathing creature with a serious drinking problem, Sammy hates being stuck in London and forced to deal with the bureaucrats of the military and political establishment. And despite being in a relationship with the beautiful and intelligent Susan (Kathleen Byron), a secretary at his research facility, Sammy thinks she stays with him more out of pity than love. The two stories come together when Sammy - who seemingly wants to die - finds himself the one who will have to defuse the bomb. 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 [1960].) 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. For more information about The Small Back Room, visit The Criterion Collection.To order The Small Back Room, go to TCM Shopping. by Jeremy Arnold

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