Monday, January 09, 2012

The Small Back Room (1949)

The Small Back Room (1949) was the first film made between Alexander Korda’s London Films and The Archers--the name given to the partnership between filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The Archers, whose official working collaboration lasted for approximately 15 years, and whose personal relationship lasted until Pressburger’s death in 1988, had worked separately for Korda in the past and had just been dropped by the Rank Organisation. Rank precipitously dumped The Archers as they mistakenly predicted that their last film, The Red Shoes (1948) would be a financial failure. The Small Back Room was much praised by critics at the time of its release, but it was a box office failure, and Michael Powell attributes the film’s initial failure to the fact that it was seen as a war story--a subject that failed to draw the cinema-going public. The film is based on the superb novel by Nigel Balchin (Mine Own Executioner, Darkness Falls from the Air). Michael Powell was a die-hard Balchin fan and read all of his novels. Korda owned the rights to all Balchin’s novel, and so one of the great British films of the High-Noir period (a term derived from Andrew Spicer’s book Film Noir) was born.

In The Small Back Room (alternate title: The Hour of Glory), it’s London, Spring 1943 and Sammy Rice (David Farrar) is part of an obscure research team led by Professor Mair (Milton Rosmer) which operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence. London and its pubs are full of raucous crowds of servicemen and women determined to live whatever life they have left. In stark contrast to the prevailing and determined Carpe Diem attitude seen in the film’s slivers of nightlife, Sammy’s existence as a man with a “tin foot” is a sustained battle against pain, bitterness and alcoholism. Certainly those elements are more than enough demons for one man to fight, but Sammy, far from the front lines of battle, also faces a number of bureaucratic skirmishes within his own department.

The film begins with the arrival of the congenial, yet deadly-focused Capt. Dick Stuart (Michael Gough) who seeks the help of Mair’s research department. A number of unexplained explosions--most of which have claimed the lives of children--have led Stuart to the conclusion that “Jerry” is dropping explosive devices along the coastal regions of Britain. Stuart tells Mair that he’s there for advice, and that he’d like to know “how to handle it when we get out hands on one.” Specifically seeking the help of a fuse expert, Stuart is directed to Sammy. Sammy, however, has already left for the day, but secretary Sue (Kathleen Byron), who is Sammy’s secret love-interest, promises to track Sammy down. Sue calls The Lord Nelson pub and speaks to publican Knucksie (Sid James) who acknowledges that Sammy is there (already being a bit of a nuisance), so Sue, with Stuart in tow, goes to collect Sammy from the pub. There’s the sense, since it took just two phone calls to pinpoint Sammy’s location, that this is a familiar event. As the film plays out, it’s clear that The Lord Nelson is a frequent refuge for Sammy, and that he doesn’t always behave well when it comes to the subject of alcohol. Certainly the name of the pub cannot be a coincidence since Lord Nelson lost one arm and sight in one eye but still continued his military career, while in The Small Back Room, our hero, Sammy continues his job with just one foot. Sammy claims that painkillers do little to alleviate the pain of wearing his “tin foot,” and he argues that alcohol is much better than anything the doctors are willing to prescribe. There is, however, a psychological component to Sammy’s pain as he’s sometimes seen rubbing or whacking at the foot in his most pensive moments.

Back at his cozy flat with Sue and Stuart, Sammy is noticeably intrigued by the idea of a new, sophisticated type of booby-trap, and he agrees to help, so Stuart arranges to contact Sammy immediately when another explosive device is found. They both reason that the devices may look reasonably harmless, and this idea is endorsed in the not-too-distant future. Their next meeting occurs over the body of a dying soldier who manages to give Sammy and Stuart some vital information about one of the explosive devices.

While scenes including bomb disposal obviously provide the film with a great deal of tension, large portions of the film reveal Sammy’s other pressing struggles. At work, Professor Mair is being slowly eased out, and since Mair’s more familiar environment is academia, he’s blithely unaware that his days working for the government are numbered. Meanwhile, the rather sharp character, a shady civil servant named Pinker (Geoffrey Keen), who has a nebulous professional role, hints that Sammy can steer the department’s helm if he just plays the right political game. But Sammy isn’t a ‘yes’ man, and neither is he much of a committee man--unlike Sue’s boss, the slippery, hideously misogynistic R.B. Waring (played by the phenomenal Jack Hawkins). Professor Mair’s Waterloo occurs over the issue of new weaponry--specifically, the Reeves Gun--which has been tested recently and according to Sammy, found lacking. Waring raves about the gun and dismisses both the army and Sammy’s reservations about its abilities. We get the measure of Waring’s political and personal sliminess when he also dismisses, with derisive scorn, those men who ‘know their jobs.’ Another of Waring’s targets for elimination within the department is also the most vulnerable, the horribly damaged, cuckolded and stuttering fuse expert, Cpl. Taylor (Cyril Cusack).

The film’s title, The Small Back Room refers quite literally to the ridiculously small space in which these scientists work. One shot shows the ceiling with a grid through which shoes of passer-bys can be clearly, and distractingly, seen and heard. The fact that this motley crew of scientists is shoved into basically a cupboard underscores that idea that their work is undervalued, and indeed that conclusion is punctuated by a brief visit from a patronizing government minister (Robert Morley). Waring, of course, has recently grabbed a large office space for himself, replete with impressive furniture fitting for what he assumes is his imminent change of status once Wair is given the heave-ho. The amoral, ambitious Waring is one of those men who will do well on the sweat of others simply because he knows the political games played by committees and bureaucrats. The film creates an interesting subtle parallel between the invisible forces that drop the mysterious new explosive device and the revelation of the banality of the committees that select weaponry with little acknowledgement of the consequences. Sammy, for all of his flaws and complications, brings some humanity to the issue of war, and for him, ultimately he can no more endorse a gun that may cost precious lives, than he can allow Waring to run a department without some degree of culpability.

Another area of Sammy’s life that’s problematic and under scrutiny is his complicated relationship with Sue. In Balchin’s book, they live together, but since censorship would never pass such a radical idea, the script inserts one line in which Sue tells Stuart, who’s just met and is clearly smitten with Sue, that she lives across the hall. However, it’s never quite established if that is true or if the line is for Stuart’s benefit as much as for the censors--a double blind line if there ever was one in the history of cinema.

As a noir protagonist, Sammy is seen both figuratively and literally as an isolated individual whose tenuous link to civilization is through Sue. Already hideously damaged when the film begins, he manages to juggle a job of immeasurable responsibility with physical problems, alcoholism and a badly battered psyche. Several scenes depict an increasingly restless and edgy Sammy as he waits for Sue. As time ticks away with Sammy in solitude, a sense of panic and a low grade anger both brew inside Sammy’s mind while his personal demons wait, never far away, in the shadows.

Kathleen Byron and David Farrar as Sue and Sammy appear to be very comfortable with each other, and the frequent looks between them are both secretive and intuitive. Anyone else on the screen is definitely outside of their intimate, sexually powerful bond. They both appeared together in another Powell and Pressburger film: Black Narcissus (1947), another story of a tortured relationship. Kathleen Byron had an affair with director Michael Powell, and this resulted in him being named as the co-respondent in her divorce. The stunning cinematography from Christopher Challis makes incredible use of Kathleen Byron’s facial structure--that secret Mona Lisa gaze she has--illuminated by brilliant use of limited lighting which highlights her face to incredible effect.

The Small Back Room owes no small debt to German Expressionism--mostly in the scenes between Sammy and his precious whisky bottle which is not supposed to be opened until V-Day. Several scenes depict an enormous Highland Clan whiskey bottle with Sammy in its threatening shadow, and of course, time, also Sammy’s enemy appears in these scenes as a gigantic alarm clock. While Sammy’s alcoholism is featured in the book, these hallucinatory nightmares sequences are exclusively for the film.

In the interview with Michael Powell on the Criterion edition of The Small Back Room (excerpted from his memoir Million Dollar Movie), the director states that instead of Balchin’s sandy beach, the location for the intense bomb disposal scene, he immediately envisioned Chesil Beach. Several shots in the film capture the unique perspective of this coastline. Powell describes the area as showing “eternal England,” and no doubt this is also why Stonehenge is used for the site of the testing of the Reeves Gun. These two sites establish the antiquity and history of Britain and a way of life under assault from the Nazi war machine. Powell and Pressburger films always uniquely exploited landscape to illuminate character and psychology, and what better way to depict Britain at war than including scenes of Chesil Beach and Stonehenge.

The Small Back Room is an anguished dark masterpiece and certainly one of the most important British films of the century. Balchin’s novel, throbbing with despair is darker still. Balchin’s Sammy isn’t quite as heroic, and the novel concludes differently with less optimism but with a certain grim determined acceptance.

Written by Guy Savage


  1. I love this film and what a great dissection of its plot and sub-plots. David Farrar was such a charasmatic actor and rather gorgeous to boot!

  2. swell post of a superb movie,prof Guy
    -this film succeeds on so many levels: just like peeling an onion, repeated viewings complete the existential jigsaw puzzle

  3. Tut. My spelling! Charismatic. That's what happens when I read your blog at 4 in the morning...

  4. Watched it after reading your article - brilliant film and a great critique. Before seeing it, I didn't appreciate David Farrar as quite so magnetic a lead - utterly credible as the tortured Sammy and the scenes where time ticks by and the ever-present whiskey bottle loom large were riveting. How to derive such tension from a bottle of Highland Scotch... As for Kathleen Byron, she was such a beauty - she really is framed to perfection in the film and it's perhaps only her meatier role in Black Narcissus that could improve on this.

    Thanks for the recommendation.

  5. Loved this film, and Farrar was great. The Stonehenge scene was a marvelous juxtaposition. And Hawkins, also wonderful, but I missed the misogyny: Just seemed like your average cad.

    Don't you think the hallucination sequences were also part of cinema's post-war fascination with psychoanalysis, as well as expressionism?

    I was struck by how understated the whole thing was. Partly because of when it was made: When Sammy calls his lover a 'bitch' a loud downbeat obscures the word. But also, it seems very British. All those cool, polite characters keeping their worlds of pain and desire out of sight.

    Finally, the scene when Stuart, questioning the dying young soldier about the bomb, switches his style to a brutal tone of command after ascertaining that the boy is about to die no matter what he does (Did it do any good? I missed that.)was a shocking portrayal of a small part of the psychology of war, no matter what side you were fighting on.