The Small Back Room review by Tom Blain
Ive only recently begun to notice the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (aka The Archers). Its not as if they "weren't around" or relevant to cinematic discussion, but being an American I am usually (sadly) more concentrated on Hollywood and US Independent films. But it was when I was listening to an episode Watching the Directors, the now retired podcast, that I was keyed to pickup something, anything available by this film making duo. The first movie I viewed and one of the few that was available was Black Narcissus, a film about a group of nuns who experience desire, temptation, and madness in a mission town in the Himalayas. It's a powerful film and it made me eager to see more by the British pair of filmmakers. Sadly, their films aren't as readily available on DVD in the States. But that is slowly starting to change and this week (8/19/2008), Criterion Collection releases The Small Back Room, a film Powell and Pressburger made a few years following Black Narcissus.
The Small Back Room takes place in London in 1943. Sammy Rice (David Farrar) is a "back room boy" meaning he is a scientist that works with guns, bombs, and other types advanced weaponry. But mostly he focuses on dismantling bombs left by the Germans on the British coast. There have been a string of bombs that have been found, sadly, by children and it is his job to figure out how to disarm them. The film follows Sammy as he gathers information about the deadly bombs hoping to learn how to safely deactivate them.
It also follows Sammy through is his tragically flawed life. He is a man whose "tin leg" prevents him from taking part in protecting his country and whose alcoholism (he has a sweet tooth for Whisky) is one of the ways he deals with his physical affliction. Susan (Kathleen Byron) is a secretary for Sammys boss and is also Sammy's secret lover. She also acts as his surrogate mother, giving him routine within his life so that he doesnt depend on the bottle. The one time in the film that she doesn't come when Sammy calls, turns into one of the more virtuoso scenes of the film. Powell and Pressburger represent his madness through a surreal dream-like hallucination where a sweating Rice is surrounded by ticking clocks and bottles of whisky; a scene somewhat reminiscent of the Hitchcock/Dali collaboration in Spellbound or the drugged Marlowe hallucination in Dymtryk's Murder My Sweet.
The real gem of the film comes towards the end in the scene where Rice is called in by the army to dismantle a bomb found on a rocky beach. As I watched this scene, it reminded me of a quote I heard from Alfred Hitchcock in an interview (or maybe I heard it from someone like Peter Bogdanovich who repeated in his own interview... anyhow). The quote was summarizing Hitchcocks theory on how suspense was gained not from the few seconds it took for a bomb to go off, but rather from the 10 minutes the viewer is waiting and watching while people scramble to stop it from going off. This scene in The Small Back Room is the textbook example of how to create suspense per Hitchcock's theory. Up to this point in the film, the audience has been absorbing information regarding Sammy's debilitating flaws (the scene before he was in a drunken stupor) as well as hearing in scene after scene from Sammy's co-workers and soldiers about how no one has figured out how these bombs were made, how to defuse them, and how they were killing everyone who set them off. The doubt that this creates, adds to the air of suspense surrounding each subtle move he makes to remove parts from the bomb. By the time he gets to the bomb, he has a patchwork of ideas on what he should do but with no solid ground (both literally and figuratively). He is also fighting off a nasty hangover which of course increases the risk for a false move. Each move is verbally recorded to a team of soldier who are safely waiting 100 meters away; in case anything happens they at least know more information. It's a great piece of filmmaking.
Even if the rest of the movie was rubbish the bomb scene is reason enough to view The Small Back Room. But luckily that isnt the case; The Small Back Room is a gem of a film, somewhat forgotten and now thankfully reprinted. It is great film making for its dissection of the flawed Sammy Rice and its ability to create suspense. Its the type of film that makes me want to go out and experience more Powell and Pressburger work.
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