Saturday, 27 June 2015

Call of duty… The Small Back Room (1949)

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.

The results feel so much like a silent film with great expressionist moments and a quite superb physical performance from David Farrar as the emotionally-crippled scientist who also happens to have just one foot. He is such a masculine presence and bravely plays out his character’s weakness with sensitivity and an immaculately-remembered limp. He is more than ably supported by Kathleen Byron who plays slightly against type as his sympathetic and steadfast partner… both of them so far away from their roles in Black Narcissus.

Kathleen Byron and David Farrar
Based on a novel by Nigel Balchin with screenplay from Pressburger with the aid of Powell, The Small Back Room followed on from The Red Shoes – perhaps surprisingly but is no less concerned with nurturing love versus natural drive.

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
Susan may see through it, but he’s punishing himself for just not being strong enough to cope with either his disability or his over-bearing masters in the ministry. He’s the lead scientist in the unit but can’t leverage this value on superiors who are mostly careerist pen pushers who wield their influence far more effectively than their talents should allow… any resemblance with the Rank Organisation is clearly deliberate: their lack of vision holds Sammy back more than his long-lost right foot…

Key signifiers in the landscape of Sammy's living room: picture, bottle and phone
Powell and Pressbuger make stunningly good use of words in this film. Where others may well show the viewer what has happened they get their characters to “tell” using their notes or third parties. A young bomb disposal expert Captain Dick Stuart (Michael Gough) arrives looking for Sammy and after locating him in his local pub goes back to his flat where he fills us all in on the story over Susan’s coffee. There’s a new German bomb which has taken the lives of a number of children as well as army officers who have failed to disarm it. We could see the deaths and the explosions but this way we are drawn into the story that we know must end in the intimacy of a close encounter, winner takes all, involving Sammy and the bomb.

...and Susan's familiar
Bomb disposal is the closest of encounters and is the battle of minds between the designer and the disposer. Later on one of the officers is killed and, again, rather than show the events, we learn in the most heart-breaking manner of the young man’s death as his Corporal (Renée Asherson who is just perfect) reads out his transcript of his encounter her voice going thick with emotion as she recalls the forensic bravery and fragile jokes of the man she clearly loved attempting and failing to outwit the enemy.

Renée Asherson's moving cameo
The film is almost perfectly paced and we know that Sammy will at some point have to face down the same opponent: whether he’ll be defeated in the same way or succumb to his own failings we genuinely don’t know and it is gripping cinema even when our heads cry out that it’s just an actor and what looks like a thermos flask…  we believe.

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
Barr talks about the film’s “restrictive narrative”, one that is focused almost entirely on Sammy – hardly anything ever happens when he’s not there and there are almost no point of view shots and no sudden screen changes to other characters: everything happens with Sammy there. This adds to the focus on character all aided by the expert cinematography of  Christopher Challis.

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
Such short term-ism and petty politicking is very much the British disease (then as now) and Powell and Pressburger were undoubtedly making comment based on their own experience. R.B. laments that he is tired of people who “know their job”  as if competency smothered commerciality. The director and writers certainly knew their jobs and were craftsmen of integrity in much the same way as the film’s heroes.

Cyril Cusack and Michael Gough
It is not just Sammy who saves the day but the rock-solid perceptions of his partner, the principled professional soldiers such as Stuart, Colonel A.K. Holland (Leslie Banks) and Colonel Strang (Anthony Bushell) who is with Sammy when the going really gets tough as well as the flawed but inspired engineers in his team – the stuttering Corporal Taylor (brilliant Cyril Cusack) and the dedicated Till (Michael Goodliffe). These are people whose steadfast commitment still stirs a race memory of selfless sacrifice in response to the call of unconditional duty.

The moment arrives...
Ultimately the concern is how the individual must rouse themselves to fulfill this sense of duty and not just for any sense of national pride but through personal responsibility to those we love and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in our name.

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
Powell delivered arguably more than any other British film-maker of his time and his work retains many rich textures that still unravel at their own pace.

I watched the Criterion DVD which is available either direct or from Amazon.

Sidney James
There’s also a lovely cameo from Sid James as 'Knucksie' Moran, a patient barkeeper who tries to look after Sammy – you’re reminded of just how good an actor Sid was when given the chance.

Patrick Macnee also makes a brief appearance on the committee. RIP Mr Steed

1 comment:

  1. Very good. This is a wonderful film. David Farrar and Kathleen Byron - my God ... I really can't understand why it isn't more widely known.