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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Small Back Room ( 1949 )

Bomb expert and research scientist Sammy Rice ( David Farrar ) is recruited by Army captain Dick Stuart ( Michael Gough ) during the height of World War II to investigate a dangerous new bomb that the German's are scattering throughout Britain's beaches. Sammy struggles with alcoholism and a sense of worthlessness because of a recent injury which left him with a wooden leg, but when he puts his life on the line to disengage one of these bombs he realizes just how beautiful life is - even with a game leg. 

Director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger made a number of excellent dramas in the 1940s which they released under the banner of their production company The Archers. The most famous of these films ( A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes ) were beautifully shot in Technicolor by cinematographer Jack Cardiff. After the color explosion that audiences witnessed in The Red Shoes, Powell decided to return to using black and white film, which the Archers were known for throughout the 1930s. This was a good choice for it emphasized the despair and the struggles that our hero, Sammy, was facing. Adding to his worries, the research department that he works for happens to be undergoing a shift in management and Sammy feels that his prospects for the future seem as bleak as the work environment he is accustomed to. The title The Small Back Room cleverly refers to the department's makeshift offices. ( In the U.S, the film was released as Hour of Glory, which was an equally fitting title ).  

Like most of the Powell/Pressburger films, The Small Back Room features some stunning camerawork ( Christopher Challis was the cinematographer ) and moving performances from all of the principal players, especially from the underrated David Farrar. However, the film lacks the momentum of the Archer's other pictures. The mystery of the German bombs that are being randomly dropped throughout Britain is the thread that binds the story and yet it seems to be hidden among the tangled netting of Sammy's personal travails until the final quarter of the picture. Sammy's struggle with self-worth and his romance with Susan, a secretary, instead take center stage. 
Kathleen Byron, another underrated actress ( and one of Michael Powell's favorite players ) portrays this secretary. This character is quite unlike the neurotic Sister Ruth that Byron is famous for playing in Black Narcissus ( 1947 ). Susan is a lovely woman who stands behind Sammy in his moments of darkness.

The Small Back Room isn't one of Powell and Pressburger's best works but it has its moments of glory and it offers an insightful look into the emotional/moral struggles that many of the "back room boys" must have been wrestling with during the war. Cyril Cusack, Jack Hawkins, and Leslie Banks also star. 

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