Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Small Back Room (1949) - Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

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.

Sammy and Sue have a surprisingly forward relationship depiction for this time period, not hiding any fact that they are having sex. This is quite a progressive portrayal of an adult, unmarried couple. David Farrar and Kathleen Byron both appeared in Black Narcissus together 2 years prior. Here their chemistry is easily apparent. Playing well off of each other both in dramatic and lighter moments, showing us they have fallen in love, not just talking about it. There is a passionately filmed scene of the two of them inside a doorway, darkly lit except for a single stream of light illuminating their faces, which is one of the best scenes in the film. Both of them show a range for this type of character study. Neither of them look too polished and movie-star like. Kathleen Byron in particular is absolutely mesmerizing. Her screen presence makes you uneasy and comfortable at the same time. She makes you want to watch and commands the screen whenever she's on it.

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.


Sam Juliano said...

Hey Jon!

I must say I quite agree. Powell and Pressberger are the greatest filmmaking duo in film history. I like the Coens, but couldn't put then in this exalted company. I did acquire the blu-rays of THE RED SHOES and BLACK NARCISSUS in the Barnes & Noble sale of several months ago, and the upgrade seems to have been validated with the vibrant, stunning Technicolor in full splendor. I'd also pose to add THE TALES OF HOFFMAN and THE THIEF OF BAGDAD to the honor list, though THE SMALL BACK ROOM is an exceedingly well-crafted piece that has worn the underrated label for too long. I am a fan of the film too and much appreciate this excellent and thoughful analysis.

Jon said...

Sam I'm glad you are a fan of this one and their films in general. Their collection of films have aged incredibly well. I suppose I must admit I haven't seen The Thief of Bagdad and will have to seek that one out. Thanks for the comments Sam.

StephenM said...

I love The Archers, too. I think The Red Shoes is my favorite, but Black Narcissus is a close second. The Small Back Room might be their most underrated film--I like it better than A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I'm Going!, and maybe even better than A Matter of Life and Death, which has a great beginning but a flawed ending, IMO. Thanks for the nice little review.

Jon said...

Hi Stephen thanks for stopping by. Yeah probably Black Narcissus is my fave by The Archers. Not sure if you've heard of the documentary out there about cinematographer Jack Cardiff. It's called Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff. Supposed to be really good and is really worth checking out if you find it, as you're a fan of The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus.