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Dipsomaniac Sammy Rice crucified by whisky bottles in a dream sequence.
So begins the brilliant wartime drama The Small Back Room, one of 12 films in a new offering of a dozen British film noir on the Criterion Channel. The collection includes two absolute classics of the genre – Carol Reed’s 1947 Odd Man Out and Jules Dassin’s 1950 Night and the City. I can watch either of them any time because they are so richly made.
A couple of the others on the list I knew and had seen, or was at least aware of, but there are others I do not know and look forward to seeing. It turned out I had only been aware of the existence of The Small Back Room from 1949 and had never seen it because I was completely captivated by the storytelling, and it is an experience one cannot forget. You can’t often say that about a movie.
It begins, as do all of the collaborations between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, with an archer drilling a target dead-center. Their production company was called The Archers, and I do believe that they get to the heart of the matter in every one of their films together. They were a special team.
The Small Back Room is one of their lesser-known efforts, which is a great shame, for it seems to me like a piece of pure cinema told from a perspective of character. Plot takes a secondary, but still important, role. It’s truly an amazing piece of storytelling and filmmaking from Powell and Pressburger, whose previous film had been the Technicolor marvel The Red Shoes.
Here in The Small Back Room they scale things down to black & white wartime London. It’s based on a 1943 novel of the same name. The title refers to the unsung war heroes working in “the small back room” to fight the Nazi threat.
In this instance, the Jerrys have been dropping from airplanes booby traps on England. The things look like a common Thermos. Pick it up and BOOM! Four people – three of them children – have already died when the subject is brought to haunted munitions analyst Sammy Rice (David Farrar, who played the male lead opposite Deborah Kerr in Powell and Pressburger’s 1947 Black Narcissus).
There is something so honest in Farrar’s portrayal of the disabled, alcoholic Rice. We learn that Sammy Rice is in constant pain from an unnamed injury that left him with a “tin foot.” The “dope” doctors have given him for the pain doesn't work. When his local publican asks how his "tin foot" is doing and if the doc has given him "dope," Sammy answers, “You won’t give me the dope I need.” He means whisky (English spelling, as we will be reminded in a later surrealist sequence full of whisky bottles).
No one mentions what it is that put every one on their guard about keeping this guy away from whisky, but we are left with the feeling that something bad has happened. Only later, after his rock of a girlfriend leaves after accusing him of feeling sorry for himself, he goes on a bender and starts trashing his apartment. Where to begin on why this is such a brilliant film?
It's both a bleak and somber wartime drama and a soulful piece of filmmaking. Powell himself sometimes called it his favorite work, but he also felt it was too cold, that there should have been more humor, so more people would have seen it. But I have to say he is wrong. I think it is a perfect film.
All of the noir elements are there – a conflicted protagonist, chiaroscuro lighting, an evil presence hanging over everything, lots of close-ups that draw us into the characters and their world. There is something so beautifully human going on in this film. The interactions between Rice and his girlfriend Susan (Kathleen Byron) do not seem as if we are watching actors but real people in a troubled relationship.
Byron was also in Black Narcissus, as the disturbed Sister Ruth. In 1943 Byron married an American pilot and they moved to the U.S. However, director Michael Powell asked her to return to England, first to appear as an angel in Powell’s 1946 fantasy starring David Niven, A Matter of Life and Death. In 1950, when her marriage to the pilot was dissolved, Powell was named as a co-respondent.
One of my favorite English character actors, Robert Morley, has a small but funny role as a government minister who stops by the small back room to see what is going on. He could be the perfect clueless, pompous English gentleman, and he is at his best here. Instead of being interested in the experiments the scientists are conducting, he is attracted to a common adding machine.
When he asks the operator at the machine to compute some numbers, the operator quickly figures out the result in his mind and responds with the correct answer, which causes Morley’s face to bunch up in irritation as he says, “Oh, yes, but you just can’t keep a dog and bark yourself, you know. Check it out. Check it out.” (I once ran into Robert Morley near Covent Garden late one night in London, 1974.)
Morley’s role further amplifies the divide between the men studying war machines to fight the Nazis, the soldiers who have to use those war machines and the stultifying bureaucracy that both must deal with.
Other notable appearances include Jack Hawkins, cast against type, rather than the steadfast hero he usually portrays, here he is a smiling, slippery character on the sales end of the new gun – he sells it to the British government before Sammy and his team have provided test results on the weapon; Michael Gough as Capt. Stewart, whose name you might not know but whose kindly face you will recognize, as a good captain who loses his life trying to disarm the Nazi bomb; and future film director Bryan Forbes (Whistle Down the Wind – 1961, Séance on a Wet Afternoon – 1964 and King Rat –1965) makes his screen debut as a dying soldier, a victim of the tricky Nazi bomb who imparts an important piece of information about the bomb to Sammy before dying.
There are some very odd segments in this film. For example, there is no explanation why the anti-tank gun Rice and his crew are analyzing is being tested at Stonehenge. Stonehenge did have an airbase near it during World War I. Perhaps that explains the odd location, but it's never mentioned. The monoliths just stand in the background as army and government types watch the demonstration.
A general on hand has to see it fire only a few times before he knows it will not be effective in battle, but when he asks Sammy for an opinion, he advises that he'll have to study the figures after the test.
Rice is in a drunken stupor when he gets the call from Stewart that they have found two of the Nazi bombs on a pebbly beach in Dorset. Stewart is going to attempt to disarm one of them while Rice travels to the location. Upon arrival, he learns Stewart was not successful. A female NCO somberly reads to Rice the shorthand notes she took of Stewart talking as he attempted to disarm the bomb. There's enough there to tell Rice where Stewart failed.
We already know that Rice is suffering from a massive hangover, but he is the only one who can figure out how to disarm this thing and save the British public. It's an incredibly tense scene as the camera goes from Rice and the bomb to the army woman listening and repeating what he says to other army personnel. It's his redemption and we are left with the feeling that all will be well from now on with Sammy and Susan, or as well as can be between two human beings.