Directing and writing team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are arguably the greatest filmmaking duo in history, along with Joel and Ethan Coen. Also known as The Archers, their string of British films in the 40's ranks them as some of the greatest filmmakers of all time, making some of my personal favorites. Usually Pressburger did most of the writing, while Powell did most of the directing. Everyone knows about The Red Shoes (1948) and Black Narcissus (1947), which are justifiably two of the greatest films and greatest Technicolor achievements ever made (I haven't seen them on Blu-Ray yet, which is a crime, but I'm looking forward to doing so someday). In fact my single-most memorable experience of watching a "color" film, one that used color to the greatest effect, is with Black Narcissus. I remember the first time watching that and feeling so much passion and life coming from that film and how it used color to create emotion that it became an overwhelming experience. Their employment of Jack Cardiff, the great cinamatographer was certainly a choice that added to the beauty and passion of the three films he helped make for The Archers. Outside of The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, they also made several other brilliant films in this stretch: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946). They are truly great pillars of cinema even though most of their films are relatively obscure to the general movie-watching public.
One movie that has in fact slipped past me all these years is their 1949 feature, The Small Back Room. Following on the heels of The Red Shoes, it seems like a curious choice. For one reason, it's in black and white. David Farrar plays Sammy Rice, a bomb disposal and munitions expert, holding a job as a scientist for a unique war outfit who works in "the small back room" for the British Army. Several curious bombs or booby traps begin appearing in parts of England, apparently planted by Germans. It becomes Sammy's job to deal with them. Sammy is an interesting character, suffering from a bomb injury that blew off his foot and recovering from alchoholism, a theme that at times dominates the focus of the film. He has a hard time sticking up for himself on the job and tends to get pushed around by his boss, played by Jack Hawkins. Meanwhile, he has a love affair with the office secretary Sue, played by Kathleen Byron.
There is a brilliant sequence toward the end of the film where Sammy has to diffuse a new type of bomb. This turns into a 17-minute scene on a pebbled beach where some great use of editing makes the scene much more action-like than it really is. As you're watching it, you might be thinking that this scene is out of place. it might appear too separate from the rest of the film. However, I would argue that we see Sammy's true calling come out. He was born to diffuse bombs and he's actually really good at it. This is important for Sammy to have this moment, and it's important for the film to have this conclusion. Powell and Pressburger's movies are always smarter than most. Their ideas about cinema and its form are progressive, singular, and hold up really well today. The Small Back Room is an underrated work from them and worthy of being mentioned with their best films.