The Small Back Room Review

London, 1943, around the turning-point of World War II. Sammy Rice (David Farrar) is a brilliant bomb disposal expert. He also has a painful tin leg and is an alcoholic, to the despair of Sue (Kathleen Byron), the woman who loves him. The Germans have dropped incendiary devices on Britain, the victims being mainly children who appear simply to have touched them. As Sammy struggles to uncover the devices’ secrets, he has to face up to his demons in the biggest challenge of his life and career.

Michael Powell wrote his autobiography (and strongly recommended it is) in two volumes. It’s not for nothing that he began volume two, Million-Dollar Movie with the making of The Small Back Room. In many ways it’s the beginning of the second half of Powell’s career, and although it’s full of interest it’s also the start of its decline. Powell and his writing, production and direction collaborator Emeric Pressburger had enjoyed their great purple patch, which had begun with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in 1943 and ended with The Red Shoes in 1948. Six features in six years, one of the greatest continuous runs in British if not world cinema, works full of visual flamboyance and an aching romanticism, works that repay countless viewings. However, Powell sensed a residual distrust amongst the British critical and production establishment. These were works unconstrained by traditional British taste, restraint and decorum. They culminate in a film (The Red Shoes) which dramatises the triumph of art (and artifice), which states that art is something worth dying for.

By contrast, The Small Back Room (released as Hour of Glory in the USA is Powell and Pressburger at their least flamboyant, which perversely makes it one of their films preferred by those who dislike their more “excessive” work. Adapted from a novel by Nigel Balchin, the film is played more or less for straight realism. Expressionist flourishes are kept to a minimum, most notably in a dream sequence where Rice battles giant clocks and whisky bottles. The main attraction for Powell was the opportunity for a big setpiece: the climactic bomb-disposal scene set on Chesil Bank, Dorset. He was reunited with most of his regular crew collaborators. Christopher Challis, who had operated Jack Cardiff’s camera in their earlier pictures, was promoted to handle the black-and-white photography of this film. The leading actors, David Farrar and Kathleen Byron, had both made an impression in Black Narcissus. The critics generally liked the film, but the public stayed away.

There are plenty of good things in A Small Back Room. The dialogue – mostly Pressburger’s contribution – is a delight to listen to, and the principal cast all turn in good performances. However, the film can’t seem to decide whether it’s a character study (Sammy Rice’s redemption drama) or a wartime solve-the-puzzle-and-defuse-the-bombs thriller. David Farrar’s handsomeness was used perfectly in Black Narcissus, and he tries his best. Unfortunately he can’t quite demonstrate what it is that makes a clearly intelligent woman like Sue to stick with a self-pitying drunk like him. Good looks aren’t enough. Powell put this failing down to the screenplay – he saw the film as essentially a love story – but as this part of the film doesn’t quite come off, it makes the film underpowered. Kathleen Byron works well on her own – Powell, recognising this, gives her luminous close-up after luminous close-up – but when she’s together with Farrar the chemistry isn’t quite there. There’s a brief scene between her and Michael Gough which hints at what could have been, but unfortunately Gough’s character tends to be sidelined, particularly towards the end of the film. The bomb-disposal scene is very tense, but it’s a long time coming. In the supporting cast you can find Renee Asherson as an ATS Corporal and Sidney James (who clearly looked the same age all his life, hair colour apart) as a publican. Robert Morley, billed as “A Guest”, turns up in one scene as a silly-ass Cabinet minister. In uncredited roles are Bryan Forbes as a dying soldier and Powell himself as a gunnery officer.

This is a basic back-catalogue disc from StudioCanal, released in the UK via Warner Home Video. In common with other Warner/StudioCanal releases (but not with WHV discs from other sources) it is encoded for Region 2 only. The transfer is a little on the dark side – shadow detail could be better – but is generally good. There’s minor print damage, with small prints and specks, but nothing too distracting. A good test for your viewing equipment is the memo that begins Chapter 4: the handwriting extends to the very edges of the frame, and some of it may be lost due to overscan. Shot in Academy Ratio, as was virtually every film made up to 1953, The Small Back Room is transferred to DVD correctly in 4:3. The transfer is certainly acceptable, but it’s not so stunning as to surpass a good off-TV recording.

The soundtrack is mono, played through the left and right channels. That’s the original sound mix, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is a very dialogue-driven film in any case, so a multichannel remix would be even more pointless than it would be anyway.

There are twenty chapter stops. There are no subtitles and no extras.

The Small Back Room is a minor Powell/Pressburger film, though there’s plenty to recommend it to their fans. Non-fans may even prefer it to their more visually grandiose work. But this is a barebones disc, so I’d recommend getting hold of it as cheaply as possible.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 13:00:56

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