Following a postwar trilogy of eye-popping, thinking persons’ Technicolor spectacles, the British filmmaking duo known as the Archers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) scaled down and returned to black and white with this character study of an alcoholic munitions researcher, nestled in the shell of a wartime suspense drama. Had The Small Back Room been produced at the time of its 1943 setting, it would likely have had a more propagandistic accent; made six years later, it can afford to focus on how the personal crisis of Sammy Rice (dark, gloom-laden David Farrar) is fed and resolved by his labors on behalf of “the Kingdom” in the titular, anonymous lab room. Fresh mid-war vernacular like “Gerrie is no gentleman” survives in the dialogue, but the emphasis is on Sammy’s teetering on the abyss of a living death, and the efforts of the weapons unit’s secretary, his codependent lover Susan (Kathleen Byron, who lusted for Farrar in the Archers’ Black Narcissus), to pull him back.
Hobbled by the pain of a metal prosthetic leg (the source of his disability is never revealed), Sammy habitually retreats to where the camera first finds him (after a pan of his empty flat, unanswered phone ringing)—self-medicating at the local pub until he’s fished out by Susan for a late-night consultation. An army captain (Michael Gough) enlists him in the effort to analyze booby-trapped bombs the Germans have been dropping over England; after several reels of Sammy ranting at bureaucrats, telling Susan he’s no good for her (with typical Archer hero aplomb: “You’ve got it all worked out in the way women always have. They don’t worry about anything except being alive or dead”), and grimly sweating through temptation and binges (in one Daliesque montage, with a giant whisky bottle filling his room), it’s inevitable that when the call comes to defuse one of the explosives, he’s soused, and that the device he’ll have to defuse (in a cunningly nerve-pricking climax) is shaped something like a decanter.
After the prestige and box-office success of The Red Shoes, Small Back Room failed with U.K. audiences who’d presumably had their fill of “war films.” What they missed was one of the period’s most piercing, emotionally anguished romances between embittered, self-destructive Sammy and the long-suffering, tough-loving Sue, with performances by Farrar and Byron that one associate of the production termed “too real.” Placing Sammy’s alcoholism into the redemption-ready booby-trap plot, and within the urgent homefront milieu, has let Small Back Room age better than Billy Wilder’s dipso-melodrama The Lost Weekend of just four years earlier, the wildly expressionist whisky nightmare notwithstanding. The Archers’ reliable eye for actors, too, pays dividends in the large cast, from Cyril Cusack’s stuttering, domestically beset fuse expert to a Robert Morley cameo as a clueless government minister. Pressburger’s scenario and Powell’s lensing occasionally escape the office and apartment sets (to the couple’s weekly nightclub outing…and a weapon test at Stonehenge!), most memorably in the climactic sequence where Sammy must uneasily prove, by poking at a bomb canister sunken in a pebbled beach, whether he can dodge the destiny of being a man “it’s just too bad about.”
Apparently due to the quality of the extant film materials, the image frequently shows some flickering, particularly on blacks in the night scenes and dark interiors, along with the odd vertical scratch. Otherwise, the range of tones, from noirish chiaroscuro to menacingly bright seaside sunshine, survive nicely. Monaural sound is crisp and layered by the Archers to evoke the vigilant buzz of wartime London.
An extraordinarily lucid commentary track by critic Charles Barr is the highlight of the supplements. Analyzing the film in the context of the Archers' reteaming with mogul Alexander Korda after breaking with the Rank studio, dissecting Powell's use of visually "constricted narration" in adapting a first-person Nigel Balchin novel, and taking careful note of nearly all of the stellar supporting players, Barr is seldom trivial and regularly insightful. Audio dictations for Powell's autobiography cover his attraction to the book and his regrets about the timing of the film, along with blaming himself and Pressburger for the insufficient wit and likability of Sammy Rice as realized on screen. (As Barr points out, he's wrong.) In a recent video interview, cinematographer Christopher Challis effuses over the Archers as collaborators, particularly contrasting the technical savvy of Powell with that of Billy Wilder, who despite his other gifts Challis found had "no visual sense at all." An essay by Nick James measures the "gritty, downbeat poetics" that inform the movie and its hero.
An atypical mid-career Archers production, The Small Back Room should rise from overlooked status with this devotedly attentive release.