The Small Back Room Review
Given their trademark logo of an arrow striking the centre of a colourful target and the visual delights of films like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, it is sometimes a shock to encounter black and white Powell and Pressburger. Obviously, the Archers made many films that way, but the position of The Small Back Room in their careers coming after the two films I mention makes it seem a bit of a visual exsanguination. With this film it is tempting to quote Marious Goring's line about the lack of technicolor in A Matter of Life and Death, except here that quality is far from denoting a heavenly setting.
The subject matter of the film is bleaker and more personal than preceeding works as it deals with the reawakening of Sammy Rice from the shabby universe of his own fear. Played by the physically imposing David Farrar, he is a scientist working on government projects intended to help the war effort. Set in 1943, some years previouly Rice has lost one of his feet and despair has eaten him up ever since. His life is a battle with the bottle that he uses to self medicate and a repressed relationship with Susan, who in the film version lives across the hall. Sammy works for a slug of a boss who cares much for personal advancement and little for giving the military what they need. Sammy despairs of the idiocy of minister, the lies of civil servants and his own ambition has become lost in himself.
The story revolves around a mystery German booby trap which is baffling and destroying civillians and men in uniform who come across it. Our first encounter with it's handiwork is when Sammy and Stuart, an army bod who brings Rice into the investigation, quiz a dying soldier about his metallic murderer. The misery of this sequence with its destruction of youth and innocence compounded by the two men interrogating and hastening the death of the soldier, illustrates the dreadful world as Rice sees it. Later the device will serve as the catalyst for Rice's restoration and his victory over the demons that taunt him.
According to Nick James' excellent essay that accompanies the DVD, the Archers were at odds over this project, with Powell the enthusiast for it. Looking at his later films, it's not hard to see that this story of a man overcoming his experiences and his misfortune would interest the director of Peeping Tom, another tale of a personality at war with itself. This internal battle is the central concern of the film and the Archers use the sexuality that both Farrar and Byron brought to their roles in Black Narcissus in very different ways here as Sammy's spiritual restoration is underlined by a physical one. This more intimate focus also leads to the images and sequences of the film being far less florrid than earlier works, with only a suprememly comic government meeting and a magnificent alcoholic nightmare to disturb a realistic tone.
If the gallantry and wider sense of the world common in the Archer's films is missing here, it is made up for by a terrific key sequence where Rice defuses the booby trap. Tense, stumbling and filled with dread, Farrar sweats his way through the machinations of his ticking adversary. His eventual victory is the foundation of his recovery, but his very survival is also wholly dependent on inspired guesswork and unflinching application. Out in the field, on a beach the exposed Rice defeats the demons of dark corridors and harsh memories - it is in public that the personal is exorcised, not in the private and hidden domain of film's title.
The Small Back Room is a welcome surprise in the Archer's filmography. A film more interested in interior concerns rather than global or universal ones.
Transfer and Sound
Criterion's restored transfer from a BFI master positive is excellent. You can quibble, and should, about their continued practice of windowboxing, but the contrast is superb and the image as sharp as you could reasonably expect a sixty year old film to be. Grain looks very natural and edges are not obviously enhanced.
The single monaural audio track is very clear throughout with rare moments of pops but again surprisingly clean for its age.
Discs and Special Features
This dual layer disc features a commentary from Charles Barr, who is aptly described as a film scholar as this is a very full commentary, ably prepared which reads the film and adds much background detail as well. There isn't a great deal of warmth or humour involved, but if you are in the mood for a seriously well informed take on the movie, this is just the job.
The interview with Chris Challis allows him to talk about meeting Powell on Thief of Baghdad and ending up working as the Camera Operator on A Matter of Life and Death. He is complimentary about Byron and examines the Archer's partnership in conclusion. Challis is warm and likeable and a good talker.
Powell himself is heard in almost fifty minutes of audio excerpts from his dictation for his autobiography describing working with Alex Korda and the film's reception:
"The critics said it was the bestpicture that Powell and Pressburger had ever made. The public might have agreed with them, but they didn't go to see it"
The booklet that comes with the disc includes Nick James essay on the film which is very good, chapter stops and details about the transfer. It is quite slight but beautifully produced.
Atypical Archers fare, but very good nonetheless. This is a fine treatment from Criterion.