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Small Back Room, The (1949)

Courtesy of Studiocanal

Main image of Small Back Room, The (1949)
DirectorMichael Powell
 Emeric Pressburger
Production CompanyArchers Film Productions
 London Film Productions
ProducerMichael Powell
 Emeric Pressburger
ScreenplayMichael Powell
 Emeric Pressburger
Director of PhotographyChristopher Challis

Cast: David Farrar (Sammy Rice); Kathleen Byron (Susan); Jack Hawkins (R.B. Waring); Leslie Banks (Colonel A.K. Holland); Michael Gough (Captain Stuart)

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A scientist and bomb disposal expert, suffering from depression and alcoholism after losing a leg, is called back to frontline duty.

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The Small Back Room (1948) marked the return of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to Alexanda Korda's London Films, after a successful but increasingly strained period with Rank. Following the Archers' most colourful and fantastical phase - culminating in The Red Shoes (1948) - the black and white The Small Back Room suggested a return to the more realistic style of their earlier work, although it retained elements of fantasy, notably in the expressionist whisky bottle scene.

From the outset, this is a rather gloomy story, based on a novel by Nigel Balchin and photographed in a shadowy, film noir style by Christopher Challis. The film follows the personal struggle of Sammy Rice (David Farrar), a former bomb disposal expert tortured by the loss of his foot and of his direction in life, who has taken refuge in the bottle.

The other side of Sammy is revealed in his romantic relationship with Susan (Kathleen Byron). Farrar and Byron had both impressed in Black Narcissus (1947), and although The Small Back Room is altogether more restrained, the scenes of the lovers together in Sammy's flat or at the Hickory Tree nightclub are emotionally charged and erotic. The lovers' grasping embrace suggests the desperate state of their relationship, witnessed by Sammy's white cat who contentedly grooms himself on the sofa.

Archers regular Hein Heckroth, promoted to Art Director for The Red Shoes (1948), took full advantage of the change in tone, and his set designs for Sammy's flat effectively convey the character's squalid existence. He also deserves a share of the credit for the film's most famous scene, in which Sammy, anxiously waiting for Susan, cowers in the shadows of his flat, oppressed by a mass of loudly ticking clocks and the looming presence of a giant whisky bottle.

In his autobiography, Million Dollar Movie, Powell lamented the film's relentless gloominess, suggesting that if it had had a little more humour and less of Farrar's sulky posturing it might have received a more enthusiastic audience.

Nigel Arthur

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Video Clips
1. Booby traps (4:07)
2. Sammy's struggle (2:56)
3. The bomb (2:43)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Danger U.X.B. (1979)
Banks, Leslie (1890-1952)
Byron, Kathleen (1923-2009)
Challis, Christopher (1919-)
Cusack, Cyril (1910-1993)
Easdale, Brian (1909-1995)
Farrar, David (1908-1995)
Hawkins, Jack (1910-1973)
Heckroth, Hein (1901-1970)
Macnee, Patrick (1922-)
Mills, Reginald (1912-1990)
Morley, Robert (1908-1992)
Powell, Michael (1905-1990)
Pressburger, Emeric (1902-1988)
Late Powell and Pressburger