A stark contrast to the run of high-coloured, swirling romances that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced in the late ’40s (A Matter Of Life And Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes etc), The Small Back Room is dark, harsh and obsessively downbeat.
Adapted from a novel by Nigel Balchin, it stars the saturnine David Farrar as Sammy Rice, a bomb expert working in a scruffy backroom scientific unit in wartime London. Crippled – he lost a foot in a bomb blast – and embittered, Sammy struggles with his inner demons and incipient alcoholism, alternately depending on and rejecting the love of his boss’ secretary, Susan (Kathleen Byron).
Even though the action is seen largely from his perspective – Farrar’s rarely off-screen – Powell and Pressburger never strive to make Sammy loveable. He’s tetchy, self-pitying, self-destructive and often goes out of his way to alienate Susan’s affections. But because he’s not the conventional romantic hero, his struggle’s all the more involving and the conclusion – a personal triumph of sorts, but with no suggestion that all Sammy’s clouds have been wafted away – rings true and convincing.
As absorbing as Sammy’s personal battle is the depiction of WW2 internal politicking. No trace of patriotic flag-waving here. Rival boffins snipe and backbite while departmental heads play power games and jockey for position – especially Sammy’s boss Waring, a fine portrayal of devious self-satisfaction from Jack Hawkins.
The film creates a shadowy, insecure world: faces picked out in darkened rooms, the grilles of elevator cages, sticky tape on windows and camouflage netting, doorways half-blocked with sandbags. All these suggest the presence of potential danger and destruction that hovers but never manifests.
As ever, Powell and Pressburger switch moods on us like quick-change artists. A scene of wry comedy when a pompous government minister (Robert Morley at his fruitiest) visits the lab is followed by the famous surrealist sequence when Sammy, tormented by the pain in his leg and Susan’s unexplained absence, grapples with a giant whisky bottle that squashes him against the walls of his flat while Brian Easdale’s score quavers dementedly.
The tense climax comes on the otherworldly shingle strip of Chesil Bank where an intricately boobytrapped German bomb has to be delicately defused by a sweating, muttering Sammy, watched at a safe distance by a group of nervous soldiers.
The Small Back Room won critical plaudits but was largely shunned by the public. Only three years after the war, its unromantic view of the conflict was maybe ahead of its time. But in its mix of personal passion and implicit violence and its evocation of interior drama, it’s classic Powell and Pressburger – something of a black-and-white companion piece to the exoticism of Black Narcissus.
Illuminating extras would have been welcome, but this is an irksomely barebones release.
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