I’ve sat many times on Chesil Beach, a Dorset oddity formed of a bank running parallel with the shore producing a long thin natural lagoon unlike anything else in Britain. The bank consists of pebbles piled deep onto the sand below: it’s hard to walk on and exhausting in the heat – the natural and perfect spot to fish for mackerel or to just surrender to the sun and the stones…
Try those same conditions with only one good foot a raging alcoholic hang-over and a mission to disarm a German mine with enough booby traps to defeat even the most sober two-footed engineer and you have the setting for the extraordinary denouement to this quietly devastating film.
You could never call Powell and Pressburger films unsubtle but The Small Back Room is probably as seemingly understated as anything they ever did during their golden stretch of the forties and early fifties. It tackles issues of disability, extra-marital relationships and alcoholism with delicacy and poise: there was no Hays code in Blighty but there were censors bred in the post-Victorian era who didn’t want to see overt co-habitation of consenting adults, near violence towards women and an heroic man reduced to “dope” and booze to cope with his weakness.
|Kathleen Byron and David Farrar|
Sammy Rice (Farrar) is the brains behind a specialist team working away in the back rooms of a London ministry. He lost his leg before the war and is constantly reminded of its absence by the pain of his artificial foot. He refuses to remove the prosthetic in the company of his lover Susan (Byron) an obvious symbol that he feels like an incomplete man without it. He drinks to numb the loss and the pain of his own inadequacy.
|Susan and Sammy on their Wednesday night out|
|Key signifiers in the landscape of Sammy's living room: picture, bottle and phone|
|...and Susan's familiar|
|Renée Asherson's moving cameo|
Before all of that we witness what Charles Barr in his commentary describes as perhaps the most complex pairing not just in an Archer’s film but in all British cinema of the period. We also see how this forms the backdrop for Sammy’s day-to-day battles as part of the expert but under-valued team that works away trying to “solve” the War in the small back room of the title.
|Sammy on Salisbury Plain|
The supporting cast is uniformly superb with Milton Rosmer as Professor Mair who runs the unit and Jack Hawkins as R.B. Waring the salesman responsible for raising their profile and getting them into trouble with the pursuit of certain technologies for convenience and profit, not necessarily effectiveness.
|The team present their findings to a Whitehall committee|
|Cyril Cusack and Michael Gough|
|The moment arrives...|
Whether this was a message cinema-goers still wanted to hear in 1948 is open to doubt as the film struggled in spite of warm reviews. Now it stands out as another of Powell and Pressburger’s films that is almost perfectly realized. David Farrar could have gone to Hollywood but stayed to work with Powell who he described as knowing how to move the art of the talking picture forward at a time, just a decade and a half after its introduction, when there must have been some doubt.
|Two extraordinary people take the tube|
I watched the Criterion DVD which is available either direct or from Amazon.
|Patrick Macnee also makes a brief appearance on the committee. RIP Mr Steed|