Monday, 11 March 2013

The Small Back Room (1949)

The Red Shoes was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's greatest commercial success, and it put them in the position of making what ever suited their fancy.  They chose to adapt a novel by Nigel Balchin, they called it The Small Back Room. It was a complete 180 from their previous film. It was a study of one man, consumed by doubts and alcoholism, shot entirely in black and white, taking place mostly indoors during World War II.

They cast David Farrar, whom they had worked with on Black Narcissus, in the lead role. They cast Kathleen Byron, also from Black Narcissus, in the main romantic interest. The film was made on a small budget, and marked the beginning of Powell and Pressburger's decrease in popularity. It was well received critically, but it never found it's audience, and lurks somewhere in their forgotten films.

Sammy Rice is an expert on explosives living in London in 1943. He is an alcoholic, a trait he refuses to accept. His girlfriend Susan loves him, but he is constantly questioning their relationship, and he is never satisfied. One day, a man in the War Office brings him a new kind of bomb that the German's are dropping all over the country. He doesn't recognize the bomb, but he wants to be alerted if another was to be dropped.

He goes on wrecking his personal life, while more and more bombs are being dropped, and he begins to reach a crisis as political tensions in his department reach a boiling point.

You can separate Powell and Pressburger into two categories, Colour and Black and White. While their colour films can be fun, and flamboyant, it is their black and white films that truly exemplify their talent. Their black and white films tended to focus on  characters, rather than sets. The Small Back Room is one such character drama. It would have been perfectly suited to be a stage play (except for the bomb scene, but I'll get to that later), but the two directors manage to craft a fully functioning film.

Yet the whole thing rests on the shoulders of one David Farrar. Farrar did good work in Black Narcissus, playing second fiddle to Deborah Kerr's lead. Here, however, he truly gets a chance to shine. His Sammy Rice is a shadow of what he used to be, a nervous wreck. He keeps soldiering on, for King and Country, to watch while everything falls apart. Powell and Pressburger use a magnificent framing device. Every time Sammy goes to his apartment, there is a close-up on the keyhole. It's like every time he goes home, he drops his thin facade and truly becomes himself.

In one brilliant scene, Farrar is consumed by his need to have a drink, yet suddenly he becomes very small, and becomes crushed by a giant bottle. It is incredibly effective scene, showcasing the best work of Farrar's career, and the tension that is come to a boiling point later on. While the entire film is cliched, it actually uses the cliches to it's advantages. It spends little time setting up the characters, and you are left to base your understandings off your own knowledge.

However, Farrar may turn in the best performance of the film, but Kathleen Byron gives him a run for his money. Her character is made up of the oldest cliches in the book, but it just takes one look from her to crush them to the ground. She is outstanding. The rest of the cast turn in great performances, but I found all my attention going towards David Farrar and Kathleen Byron, and not to the supporting characters. There is however, one scene that stands out in particular. In it, Farrar goes to visit a dying soldier, to obtain information about a new type of bomb. The soldier is close to death, but he still tries to tell Farrar all he knows. It's a terrific scene.

The cinematography is wonderfully stark, and in glorious black and white. Pressburger's screenplay functions on all accounts. It provides emotion context, a great plot and a wonderful story arc. I'll take the time now to talk about the film's most famous scene. If The Small Back Room is remembered at all, it is for it's bomb defusing scene. The scene is incredibly thrilling, while providing an emotional climax for the film. In it Sammy is on his last string. He is drunk when he is called out to defuse a bomb. Someone else had tried it, and died in the process.

He arrives, tired and worn out, and decides to give it his all. The scene is incredibly harrowing, and easily the best of the film. There is one point where Farrar is puling on a lever. If he lets go, the bomb will explode, and he will die. He is pulling with all his life, as if concentrating all of his failures into this one moment, when he cannot fail. It is thrilling.

Powell and Pressburger direct with ease, trying something very different from their other efforts. Instead of spectacle and action, they focus on character, and it pays off. The film is not without flaw. It drags in some parts, and it contains cliches galore. However, in the end, it is nothing but an entertaining movie, if slight. It may not be their most well known films, but it it one of their best.

The Small Back Room,
Starring: David Farrar, Kathleen Byron and Jack Hawkins,
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
8/10 (A-)

1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
2. The Small Back Room
3. The Tales of Hoffman
4. The Spy in Black
5. I Know Where I'm Going

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