The fantasy-enriched, near operatic Technicolor dramas for which director-writer-producer collaborators Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are perhaps best known—such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948)—sit in luxuriant contrast to The Small Back Room (1949), their piquant black-and-white adaptation of a novel by Nigel Balchin. The Small Back Room is a modest-scale psychological drama about an explosives expert with a “tin leg” and a drink problem who harbors a great deal of bitterness. In the above-mentioned other films, the Archers (as Powell and Pressburger called themselves) usually preferred a narrative tone of derring-do and wry amusement, from under which deeper emotions would swell to the surface. They rarely set out to generate the kind of gritty, downbeat poetics that make The Small Back Room such a darkly glittering triumph.
But then, The Small Back Room was born out of disappointment: Powell and Pressburger made the film straight after their British studio, the Rank Organisation, had dropped them, believing (erroneously) that The Red Shoes would make no money. This sent the partners back into the welcoming arms of Hungarian producer-impresario Alexander Korda, who had brought them together in the late 1930s, and who had lately revived his London Films production house. An enthusiastic Powell had first mooted an adaptation of The Small Back Room in 1945, but Pressburger was initially less sure, thinking it “a brittle, cold story.” He sent Powell a telegram that read: “I regard it not Archers but your own baby.” At that time Pressburger was about to direct a solo project, The Miracle in St. Anthony’s Lane, but for various reasons it didn’t come off. When they returned to London Films three years later and found that Korda happened to own the rights to Balchin’s novel, Pressburger was persuaded to give it a chance.
The Small Back Room, then, emerged from the kind of adversity that often makes for the most distinctive works. It gave Powell and Pressburger the chance to revisit the war years without the burden of being official propagandists. (In 1939 Korda had persuaded Winston Churchill of film’s usefulness to the war effort. The Archers were then sponsored by the Ministry of Information to make 49th Parallel, in which the Nazi threat arrives in North America. They eventually had a spectacular falling out with the ministry over the implicit criticism of the army top brass in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.) Their new take is a rare piece of British noir in which the darkness, claustrophobia, noise, and paranoia of 1943 London become purgatory for a boffin hero whose loss of a leg and consequent suffering are never explained. Sammy Rice (played by a suitably brooding David Farrar) works for a special weapons research unit under a Professor Mair. A Captain Stuart comes to the unit looking for advice about a booby-trapped weapon Jerry is dropping that’s killing small children. Mair suggests he talk to Sammy, and asks Susan (the luminously winsome Kathleen Byron), the unit secretary, to find him.
This action is all handled in one of those smoothly complex opening sequences for which the Archers are rightly famous: a tight-lipped Stuart (played with alert intensity by Michael Gough) is driven past the Buckingham Palace gates and dropped off at a cacophonous building catering for dozens of foreign military—French, Norwegian, Czech, American, Polish, etc. On finding the research unit, Stuart is greeted loudly by a regimental sergeant major, halts briefly on the stairs when he hears Susan’s offscreen voice for the first time, and is palmed off blandly back to her by Mair. Thus we meet swiftly a gallery of bit-part eccentrics in the chaos of wartime and are firmly in the familiar, quirky world of Powell and Pressburger. Stuart flirts with Susan (and gets rebuffed), while she tracks Sammy down to the pub. We meet Sammy there, not too deeply in his cups. Given the hush-hush nature of Stuart’s problem, Sammy invites him back to his flat, and suddenly we’re at the heart of the film, in the titular small back room, where Stuart twigs the nature of Sammy’s relationship to Susan, and where a bottle of Highland Clan whisky sits unopened. “We’re keeping this one for V-day,” Sammy explains.
Thus far Powell and Pressburger’s trademark mixture of stoic characters, playful dialogue, and visual panache might have led us to expect another romantic-heroic celebration of human fortitude, were it not for Sammy’s sighing and wincing with pain and the terseness with which he deals with Stuart—which signal a rather different perspective on war and heroism. After Stuart leaves, we discover the extent of Sammy’s difficulties. As Sammy flops onto the sofa, Farrar’s craggy-faced, tweed-suited bulk, which has filled the screen so winningly, is suddenly diminished and inert. “Is it hurting?” asks Susan. “Not more than usual,” is his self-pitying retort. “Why don’t you take it off?” she asks, and gets no reply. He then complains about the ineffectiveness of the dope he’s been prescribed. Her method of treatment—to offer him the whisky she hopes he’ll refuse—only just works.
In his daily duties, every remark Sammy makes is a measuring up. He is forever testing people as if they were as suspect as the Reeve’s gun that his mentor Mair and the odious administrator R. B. Waring (realized with splendid oiliness by Jack Hawkins) are trying to foist on the military. He likes Stuart, and all can-do, self-deprecating army officers tend to inspire a growing appreciation in him, whereas he is utterly contemptuous of the self-seeking apparatchiks who might advance his career. In his moral attitudes, Sammy occupies the same high ground as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Both are compulsive truth tellers. When a Machiavellian civil servant spots Sammy in a restaurant and sits down next to him, Sammy underlines his rudeness by saying, “Hello, Pinker. Sit down.” Cantankerous, gloomy, and bloody-minded, Sammy is a tortured soul ripe for noir, and rarely does he resemble the Archers’ better-known heroes—though Farrar does here carry a trace of his performance as Mr. Dean, the cynical Englishman “gone native” in Black Narcissus.
As an alcoholic with a missing leg, Sammy represents an obvious Freudian construct of impotence, but remarkably for its time (and for the Archers) The Small Back Room presents the relationship between Sammy and Susan in fairly realistic terms. In the novel the two live together; this could not be shown in British cinema of the period. Kathleen Byron claims the credit for the elegant solution of having the two live across the hall from each other. As Susan, she’s quite unlike the nun crazed by sexual frustration that she played in Black Narcissus, but she is a typical Powellite heroine: intelligent, instinctive, beautiful, patient, and with a touch of mystical foresight. Susan is Sammy’s amelioration, the balm for his wound. Their relationship makes The Small Back Room a kind of anti–Brief Encounter (David Lean’s film was made just a few years earlier). The British “good form” of self-denial rules both films, but The Small Back Room grapples with the sticky, intractable problems of a live-in relationship rather than the pallid, repressed romanticism of thrill-seeking provincials. Its depiction of companionship and care on the brink of catastrophe conceals a deeper undertow of romantic commitment to risk.
The focus of Powell’s enthusiasm for the book was its climax, in which Sammy has to defuse one of the weapons Stuart has described. It meant that a film dominated by taped-up windows throwing crisscross shadows into confined and cluttered interiors could break out into the wide outdoors. Powell, a master at employing Britain’s few natural cinematic settings, chose Chesil Beach, with its wall of shifting pebbles, as a fiendish environment in which to take a bomb to pieces. He was delighted to note afterward that this seventeen-minute sequence lasts almost exactly the same amount of time as the climactic dance in The Red Shoes. But though brilliant, the sequence is overshadowed in cultural memory of The Small Back Room by the famous expressionist nightmare in which Sammy mistakenly believes he has been abandoned by Susan and imagines the whisky bottle growing to a towering size and bearing down on him. The Archers’ favorite designer, Hein Heckroth, created this at Powell’s instigation, partly to rival Salvador Dalí’s dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945).
Though British critics of the time hailed The Small Back Room as a welcome move by the Archers toward realism, they thought the giant whisky bottle a throwback to the kind of excess they continued to find suspect and un-British about the Archers’ work. Of course, Powell and Pressburger’s openness to such aesthetically audacious moves is the very reason they are held in such high esteem today. And if tonally The Small Back Room has more of Powell’s quirky romanticism than Pressburger’s adroit wit, the latter’s script displays a deftness with thematic transitions throughout. Take the excellent weaving of script and realization in the scene in Whitehall, which comes just after the giant whisky bottle. Sammy is obliged to read out the Reeve’s gun statistics to the minister, the top military brass, a select committee of scientific rivals, and his own colleagues. As he reads, the minister is leafing through art prints, there’s deafening drilling coming up from the streets, and the minister’s men are noisily arranging the blackout at the windows. At the end of the recitation, the minister doesn’t notice for a moment. When he does, he says, “The summary will of course be circulated.”
All this is a preamble to Colonel Holland’s impassioned plea not to be stuck with a gun that doesn’t work. Sammy’s conscience is pricked. The heroism of people like Holland and Sammy is hard earned, pitted as they are against the self-serving, but it is never solemn. Sammy’s occasional spasm of self-pity is just the counterpoint to his sardonic self-mockery. The small back room in this sense is the mind itself, and Powell and Pressburger furnish it with their familiar dazzling élan.
Nick James is the editor of Sight & Sound, a contributor to the London Observer, and the author of a monograph on Michael Mann's Heat in the BFI Modern Classics series.