The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - THE SMALL BACK ROOM | The Movie Waffler

Re-Release Review - THE SMALL BACK ROOM

The Small Back Room review
A disabled bomb expert grapples with alcoholism and his relationship with a loving colleague.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Starring: David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough, Leslie Banks, Cyril Cusack

The Small Back Room bluray

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1949 adaptation of Nigel Balchin's novel The Small Back Room may be set at the height of World War II, 1943 to be precise, but it's very much dealing with a post-war theme. It centres the emasculation felt by many British men who had emerged from the conflict with mental and physical disabilities, who despite the best efforts of various support networks felt like they were only half men.

Sammy Rice (David Farrar) is a "back room boy," a scientist who fights the war from a small office in London where he works as part of a team who develop new weapons for the allies and analyse those of the enemy. That's not to say Sammy has never faced danger. At some point he lost a leg, which has now been replaced by a metal substitute. The artificial limb drives him crazy with what a modern audience will now view as a sort of body dysmorphia, and he soothes his pain with alcohol, though he avoids whisky. Every night ends with Sammy being kicked out of his local pub when the landlord (a pre-Carry On Sid James) refuses to continue serving him, and so he returns to his flat where a taunting bottle of Scotch sits on a table. Sammy has vowed not to open the bottle until Germany has been defeated, but in 1943 that seems a long way off, and it's an act of extreme masochism on Sammy's part to torture himself so.

The Small Back Room review

Also awaiting Sammy each evening are the loving arms of his live-in girlfriend Susan (Farrar's Black Narcissus co-star Kathleen Byron), who also works as a secretary to his boss (Jack Hawkins). Poor Susan is subjected to the same mopey tirade of self-pity from Sammy every night, but she sticks by him regardless, not out of pity but of genuine affection. She constantly tells Sammy that his prosthetic leg doesn't bother her, and we can tell she means it. But Sammy can't accept that someone views him as a whole man rather than the half a man he sees himself as. His self-loathing begins to drive a wedge between Sammy and Susan until he finds possible redemption in the form of booby traps that have been dropped by the Nazis in civilian parts of England. The military have thus far been unable to figure out the mechanics of the bombs, but if Sammy can do so he just might feel like he has a purpose again. On the other hand, tampering with such devices may claim his life.

Focussing more on the fraught romance between Sammy and Susan than on the military intrigue of the source novel, Powell and Pressburger examine the notion that women crave love while men crave respect. Sammy receives enviable love from Susan, but it's not enough. He needs to be told he has a purpose, not by the subjective woman who adores him, but by an objective member of his own profession. Anyone who has ever hit a wall in their chosen career only to be comforted by a well-meaning lover whose words are rendered meaningless will empathise with Sammy's feelings, if not his stubbornness. But it's impossible not to sympathise with the long-suffering Susan. Sammy's cold treatment of her is almost an unwitting form of abuse on his part. He's an emotional zombie whose heart is as numb as his leg. At several points Susan tries to goad him into a confrontation but fails to rouse him. His spirit is so broken he simply can't see the point in arguing.

The Small Back Room review

The Small Back Room has a structure reminiscent of Dreyer's Ordet in that for a long stretch it leaves you wondering where exactly it's headed as it refuses to weave anything that resembles a traditional narrative. Instead it puts us in the presence of these people, detailing their everyday ups and downs (mostly downs in this case) so richly that by the final act we're suddenly and surprisingly overcome by emotion as we realise how much we care about these characters. Powell and Pressburger wilfully obscure the espionage subplot for most of the film, rendering it almost inconsequential compared to the tribulations of Sammy and Susan. One scene sees Sammy take part in a meeting with various ministers, boffins and military personnel to discuss the merits of a new type of gun. In the grand scheme of the war it's a highly important gathering, but for Sammy it's just Tuesday. Rather than focussing on the details of what's being discussed at the meeting, the filmmakers instead obscure much of the dialogue by drowning it out with the sound of nearby roadworks. A full decade before Hitchcock would garner praise for a similar trick in North by NorthWest, Powell and Pressburger are explicitly letting the audience know that sometimes there are more important things to pay attention to in a movie than its plot.

And there's much to pay attention to here. This black and white production may not boast the technicolor and lavish sequences of the Archers' more famous works, but it's a visually striking film nonetheless. The film's social realist narrative doesn't prevent Powell and Pressburger from engaging in expressionist techniques, like the scene where a thirsty Sammy is haunted and taunted by that bottle of Scotch, which assumes gigantic proportions while its outline appears on his flat's wallpaper pattern. Prior to that pivotal sequence, the bottle is always conspicuous in its placement in the frame; just as it's rarely out of mind for Sammy, it's rarely out of sight for the viewer. Another wonderful visual sees Sammy greeted by his own pathetic reflection when he discovers Susan has removed her portrait from the picture frame he keeps in his home, a magnificent way to convey how much he took her for granted and the sudden emptiness he now feels in her absence. Byron's beautifully expressive eyes are exploited to great effect by Powell's camera, which often focusses on their sadness as she tries to hold it together for the sake of her stubborn lover.

The Small Back Room review

Like the aforementioned OrdetThe Small Back Room climaxes with a set-piece that is positively transcendent as a hungover Sammy finds himself tasked with dismantling an active Nazi booby trap on Chesil Beach. It's the most fraught bomb disposal scene in all of cinema, not just because of how Powell technically constructs the sequence with his own bomb-maker's precision, but because it arrives in the aftermath of a possibly relationship-ending argument between Sammy and Susan. As Sammy's shaky hands try to grapple with tiny wires and cables we're on the edge of our seats because we know that if he pulls this off he'll finally feel whole again and might be able to accept and appreciate Susan's love. If it goes wrong we dread to think of the effect it will have on Susan. The scene is made all the more substantial by that which directly proceeds it: as a stenographer recounts the notes dictated by an officer who lost his life attempting to defuse the same bomb, tears begin to well in her eyes and she chokes on his words. In what feels like a callback to David Niven and Kim Hunter's famous radio conversation in A Matter of Life and Death, the dead man flirts from beyond the grave with the stenographer as though figuring he had nothing to lose at that point, he'd shoot his shot. Sometimes it takes the threat of being blown to pieces by a Nazi bomb to make a man realise what's important.

The Small Back Room
 is on DVD, bluray and VOD from Studiocanal on June 3rd.