Saturday, June 24, 2017
The Small Back Room
Based on the novel by Nigel Balchin, The Small Back Room is the story of a research scientist who is asked to take part in a research involving a new German weapon during World War II. Written for the screen and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the film is an exploration of a man dealing with his role in the world as well as succumbing towards self-destructive behavior that would trouble his relationship with his secretary. Starring David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Robert Morley, Michael Gough, and Cyril Cusack. The Small Back Room is a gripping yet evocative film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
It’s 1943 during World War II as the film revolves a bomb expert/research scientist who is asked to do work for the government on a series of new bombs created by the Germans which had killed a few people including children. It’s a film that follows this man who is reluctant in doing the job as he finds himself dealing with military and government officials who don’t do enough to help him while he is becoming troubled by his dependence on alcohol which is troubling his own relationship with his secretary whom he’s in a romantic relationship with. The film’s screenplay by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger wouldn’t just follow the struggle that Sammy Rice (David Farrar) is coping with both at work and at home but also the expectations and demands from his bosses at work in trying to understand what this bomb has done. Rice’s secretary/girlfriend Susan (Kathleen Byron) is aware of the chaos that is looming upon him but also his lack of ambition to do more as he’s hampered by a bad leg as well as his growing alcoholism that would eventually take its toll.
The direction of Powell and Pressburger is visually entrancing not just for some of noir-like visual style but also in the fact that it’s a story that is grounded in reality. Shot largely at various sound stages in Britain with some of the exterior locations are shot in and around Britain including the famous site of Stonehenge. The direction for some of the exterior scenes are simple in terms of the few wide shots in the film as much of it have Powell and Pressburger utilize medium shots and close-ups for many of the film’s interior scenes including the scenes at Rice’s lab with his staff at it has this claustrophobic feel for how small it is compared to a conference room during the film’s second half. The scenes at a nightclub where Rice and Susan go to are quite spacious but also intimate where it also has these unique compositions in where the characters are in the frame as well as Rice’s view when he sees Susan dancing with another man.
The direction also include this very surreal sequence as it relates to the struggle that Rice has in his alcoholism where it involves this bottle of whiskey and a clock as it is this amazing sequence filled with unique camera angles and extravagant set designs. It’s a scene that help play into the drama that would intensify in its third act where Rice’s desperation and fragility come into play. The film’s climax which involves a bomb that Rice is researching is quite intense in terms of its suspense where Powell and Pressburger choose to present the whole thing in a restrained approach. It is a moment in the film that is quite chilling in what is going through Rice’s head as tries to figure out what the creator of the bomb would do as it would also force him to confront himself. Overall, Powell and Pressburger create a riveting and mesmerizing film about scientist’s struggle to maintain his sanity during World War II and battling alcoholism.
Cinematographer Christopher Challis does brilliant work with the film’s black-and-white photography with its emphasis on stylish lighting and moods that play into the drama including Rice’s struggle with his sobriety as well as the soft lights for some of the close-ups. Editors Reginald Mills and Clifford Turner do excellent work with the editing as it is quite straightforward with some stylish shots for the nightmare sequence as well as some rhythmic cutting for some of the dramatic suspenseful moments. Production designer Hein Heckroth and art director John Hoesli do amazing work with the look of the lab and offices that Rice works at in how small it is as well as the look of Rice’s apartment home including the nightmare sequence which is a highlight of the film’s art direction.
Costume designer Josephine Boss does fantastic work with the design of the gowns and dresses that Susan wears at work as well as in the nightclub scenes. The sound work of Alan Allen is superb for some of the sound effects that play into the testing of weapons and such including the conference scene where sounds would pop up every now and then to play into some of the film’s intense moments including its climax where it is used sparingly. The film’s music by Brian Easdale is terrific for its mixture of bombastic orchestral music with some eerie textures with the usage of the theremin to play into some of the suspense and drama that looms throughout the film.
The casting by Madeleine Godar is wonderful as it feature some notable small roles from Bryan Forbes as a dying gunner who had a fatal encounter with a German bomb, Sid James as a bartender at the bar Rice frequents at, Milton Rosmer as a fellow professor, Renee Asherson as a corporal at the beach site for the film’s climax, Leslie Banks as a colonel who is trying to speed things up with the weapons test, and Robert Morley as a minister of war who is trying to use his position of power to get Rice to speed things up. Cyril Cusack is terrific as a stuttering soldier in Corporal Taylor who often guards the building that Rice works at as he is one of the few friends that Rice has. Michael Gough is excellent as Captain Dick Stuart as the person who goes to Rice for help about the bomb as he would take part in the research.
Jack Hawkins is brilliant as R.B. Waring as a military official who is trying to help Rice but also be aware of the many things that are happening behind the scenes. Kathleen Byron is incredible as Susan as a secretary who is also Rice’s girlfriend as it’s a radiant performance from Byron as a woman who is supportive but also not afraid to speak her mind about Rice’s lack of ambition as well as dependence on alcoholism. Finally, there’s David Farrar in a phenomenal performance as Sammy Rice as a bomb expert who is also a research scientist that is troubled by the demands from his bosses about the bomb as he also copes with his alcoholism where Farrar’s sense of anguish is riveting to watch.
The Small Back Room is a sensational film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger that features remarkable performances from David Farrar and Kathleen Byron. Featuring a compelling story, eerie visuals, and a great supporting cast, the film is definitely one of the finest war dramas made about World War II that doesn’t feature any combat as well as an exploration of man’s battle with substance abuse. In the end, The Small Back Room is a tremendous film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Powell-Pressburger Films: The Spy in Black - Contraband - (The Lion Has Wings) - (An Airman’s Letter to His Mother) - 49th Parallel - One of Our Aircraft is Missing - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - (The Volunteer) – A Canterbury Tale - I Know Where I'm Going! - A Matter of Life and Death - Black Narcissus - The Red Shoes - (The Elusive Pimpernel) - (Gone to Earth) - The Tales of Hoffman - (Oh… Rosalinda!!!) - (The Battle of River Plate) – Ill Met by Moonlight - Peeping Tom - (They’re a Weird Mob) - (Age of Consent) - (The Boy Who Turned Yellow)
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