Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 107 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: August 19, 2008
Review Date: July 31, 2008
One of those crackerjack British suspense films that take the mundane and cleverly tighten the screws until you’re squirming in your seat, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Small Back Room is quite a ride. All British stiff upper lip and jolly old chap stuff at the beginning, the film’s dynamic producing-directing duo take their wartime saga which could have been rather old news by the time it was made (and even more so now) and turn the tables on the viewer with a series of marvelous sequences that will remain indelibly etched in every viewer’s brain who's lucky enough to see it.
Injured scientist and war munitions expert Sammy Rice (David Farrar) toils away in a small back room under the dominion of the British political and military establishment. They don’t really understand the work his department is doing, and the scientists have nothing but disdain for the bullying higher-ups who only want results and don’t know any way to get them. He’s working on a host of projects in an effort to bring about a British victory in World War II, but it’s 1943 and with the war’s end not yet in sight, Rice is busy trying to invent more foolproof weaponry and trickier bombs while also trying to figure out the inner workings of the enemy’s artillery. Making his working life more challenging is his injury necessitating an artificial leg which requires him to either be in pain or be doped up and unable to work, his dependence on liquor to dull the pain thus pushing him toward complete alcoholism, and his erratic emotional relationship with his boss’s secretary Susan (Kathleen Byron).
Powell and Pressburger’s script (based on the novel by Nigel Balchin) is a marvelous blend of character study and melodrama, and in Sammy Rice they’ve created a character who’s both immensely likable and also imminently frustrating. The romantic ups and downs of Sammy and Susan are rather tiresome, but their combustible relationship is necessary to establish two of the film’s most magnificent set pieces: a surrealistic drug binge where a clock and a whisky bottle loom in monstrous dominion over a despondent Sammy (stolen for comic effect by both Vincente Minnelli in Father of the Bride and George Cukor in Pat & Mike) and a climactic bomb defusing sequence which absolutely defies the audience not to be squirming and jumping in their seats during its unbearably grueling 17-minute length. Smaller touches like an underground lab with the unsettling footsteps of passersby above or faces reflected in picture frames continually remind us what visually expert filmmakers Powell and Pressburger were. Even with the visuals so dazzling, sound is used equally creatively in this movie and even with the monaural mixes employed by artists of the period, the sound plays a continual, key role in the effectiveness of this piece.
David Farrar’s Sammy Rice is likely his greatest performance so full of suavity, self-pity, drunkenness, and tender emotion as it is to make his other work in such films as Black Narcissus or The Black Shield of Falworth almost seem like child’s play in comparison. Michael Gough as Sammy’s fellow munitions expert makes an interesting counterpart to Sammy: secure, steady, but a bit dull in comparison. Jack Hawkins gets top featured billing for the relatively small role of R. B. Waring, the scientific branch’s head man as secure in his position as Sammy is wavering in his own. Kathleen Byron does what she can with her rather clichéd loyal secretary and lover role while Robert Morley has a delightfully amusing cameo as a dotty political minister doing an inspection of the lab and not understanding a thing that he sees or is told.
The Small Back Room takes a bit of time to grab the viewer by the shirt and pull, but the results are certainly worth it, one of the Archers’ greatest and most surprisingly adept suspense films.
The film’s 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is presented slightly windowboxed in Criterion’s usual fashion. Though the movie begins with a distressingly weak grayscale and milky black level, things quickly right themselves resulting in a beautiful image with rich blacks, excellent contrast, and terrific shadow detail. There is a hair and some slight white scratches that appear off and on during the movie, but they’re aren’t particularly bothersome. The film has been divided into 14 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is pretty much what you’d expect for a film of this period. There is some low level hiss and some flutter on the track early on, but later, when sound effects become particularly important to the story in maintaining its level of surprise and suspense, the audio levels and quality are just fine.
An audio commentary is provided by film historian Charles Barr. He has excellent information to impart about the making of the film, and he does a thorough analysis of the movie as well. There are only one or two moments where he pauses from speaking in this well produced film lecture.
Cinematographer Chris Chalis speaks for 21 ½ minutes on his experiences working for the Archers with his great admiration for Michael Powell rising especially to the fore. This 2008 interview is filmed in anamorphic widescreen.
Director-producer-writer Michael Powell reads excerpts from his autobiography which relate directly and indirectly to The Small Back Room. The audio reading is 48 minutes long.
The enclosed 14-page booklet contains a few stills from the movie as well as a critical essay by film essayist Nick James.
The Small Back Room was not the success at the box-office of some of the Archers’ more elaborate Technicolor extravaganzas, but seen today in hindsight, it’s the equal to all of them in its expert distillation of suspenseful character analysis to its very essences. It comes highly recommended.