The Small Back Room (1949)   Leave a comment

back room poster

A series of mysterious deaths, most of them children, follow the nightly German bombings during London’s blitz. After investigating, the Army learns that before their deaths by explosion these children all found a brightly-colored object resembling a thermos and died after approaching or touching it. Eager to learn something about the booby-traps and how to diffuse them, Captain Stuart (Michael Gough) seeks the aid of Sammy Rice (David Farrar), a highly regarded scientist in a top-secret intelligence investigation unit. The unit, housed in a dingy, small back room crack codes, test weaponry, and generally solve problems no one else can. Sammy, the de facto leader of the group meets Stuart and they decide he will call Sammy the next time they find a bomb so he can come to the scene and study it to prevent more deaths.

room

Sammy goes to work the next day and we see his co-workers. Till, played by Michael Goodliffe works on codes, ciphers, and statistics. Corporal Taylor (a young Cyril Cusack) deals with munitions. Joe (Emrys Jones) spends most of his time between assignments on the phone with his girl. Sue, played by the lovely Kathleen Byron serves as secretary and is having a secret affair with Sammy. The group works well together. They depend on Sammy to advocate for them with the higher ups. With a few exceptions, the middle and upper management are self-serving buffoons interested more in their own advancement than the safety and happiness of the men under them. A fine example of this is a trip the Minister of their section makes to the lab. The men put on a dog and pony show for the insipid man, beautifully played by Robert Morley, and show him some phony experiments to dazzle him. He leaves happily discussing restaurants with the obsequious Waring (Jack Hawkins) and the men can get back to work. Full of in-fighting and political intrigue, the department holds no interest for Sammy. Sammy sidesteps the political machinations, but never states his own opinion preferring to avoid conflict and responsibility. It’s clear he should be running the group, but he refuses to make any effort to do so.

bureaucracy

Sammy has other things on his mind. We find out early in the film that Sammy has a drinking problem. Bitter over an accident ten years before which left him with a prosthetic lower leg and in pain, Sammy turned to drink. He no longer drinks whiskey, but it takes resolve and the help of Sue to keep him sober. Sue is always there to support him when Sammy starts to falter. She adores him and he loves and depends on her. It’s a much more adult love story than most films of the 1940s and Farrar and Byron have amazing chemistry. Their physical relationship is implied as well. Soon, the pressures of Sammy’s job, his pain, both physical and mental, and his alcoholism threaten to end his affair and sabotage his career.

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All the while, bombs continue to fall on London and more die as a result of them and the booby traps. Captain Stuart and Sammy along with their crews work to stop the senseless killing. The scene with a hungover Sammy and a bomb on a beach is as suspenseful as they come.

bomb

In the commentary included on the Criterion version of The Small Back Room, Michael Powell refers to this film as a love story first and a WWII film second. Marketing The Small Back Room as a war film was a mistake, Powell says. No one wanted to see war films in 1949, so the film did poorly at the box office. That’s too bad because the film is a gem. Based on a book by Nigel Balchin, it has everything. A riveting story, characters we care about, and realistic acting by the entire cast make the film a joy. It’s one of those films that makes you wonder what happens to the characters after the film ends. It also looks fabulous. Christopher Challis, who worked as a camera operator on Powell and Pressburger’s 1947 masterpiece Black Narcissus did the cinematography for The Small Back Room. John Hoesli served as art director and Hein Heckroth did the production design. The artists really got to show off in one scene which reminded me of the surrealism of Milland’s bats in The Lost Weekend.

bottle

Composer Brian Easdale even used a theremin to highlight the agony of an alcoholic trying valiantly to resist the drink. I can’t say enough about The Small Back Room. The performances by Farrar, Byron, Gough, Cusack, and the whole cast along with gorgeous black and white cinematography and wonderful production values courtesy of The Archers work. I highly recommend it.

Oh yes, I nearly forgot to mention Stonehenge. They shot part of the film at Stonehenge. So the film has terrific acting and writing and it also has Stonehenge…and a theremin. You owe it to yourself to see this.

stonehenge

archers

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