Sunday, May 15, 2011

Underrated Movie #116: The Small Back Room

Title: The Small Back Room
Year: 1949
Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Writers: Powell and Pressburger, based on the novel by Nigel Balchin
Stars: David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough

The Story: A brilliant, wounded scientist does what he can to continue the fight from the homefront as one of the vaunted “back-room boys”. Along the way, he tries to avoid being overwhelmed by petty inter-office politics and his own personal bitterness. Things come to a head when he becomes obsessed with defusing a deadly new type of booby-trapped bomb.

How it Came to be Underrated: All of Powell’s movies (with or without Pressburger) were underrated for years. Most of them have been gradually re-discovered recently, but this one has still fallen through the cracks, unknown even by many of Powell’s fans.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This is one of the best movies ever made about the day-to-day struggles in the lives of scientists. In one scene, they hear that the minister is coming by so they mock up a phony bubbling-beaker experiment to make it look like they’re “doing science,” since there’s nothing that looks worse than a room full of well-paid people sitting around just thinking.
  2. During wartime, Powell and Pressburger made lots of thrilling “we can do it” war movies to help the effort. It’s shocking to see them revisit the same events after the war with a far more jaundiced eye. Farrar’s increasing desperation to have a drink to dull the pain of his wound allows their more expressionistic side to come out.
  3. Two great ways to juice up a scene: (1) Two mature adults agree to keep the peace by not talking about something, then someone immature comes in the room and that’s all they want to talk about. (2) An endlessly-ringing phone that the characters refuse to answer. We’ve all felt the urge to not answer, but we all know how it unbearable it becomes after too long. For the most part, voicemail has taken this wonderful cinematic device from us.
  4. Whenever I see a movie that re-unites the stars of another movie I can’t help but imagine that it’s the same two characters who have moved on to very different lives, which would mean that Farrar and Byron, before they became a secretary and a scientist, had a secret history as a crazy nun and a randy mountain-man in the Himalayas (as seen in Black Narcissus).

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: You can find more addiction-cursed post-war blues in Billy Wilder’s The Long Weekend and Nick Ray’s Bigger Than Life.

How Available Is It?: It’s got a nice Criterion DVD with an excellent commentary by a veddy-British film historian.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: This Nazi Family!


j.s. said...

Love that example of setting up the equipment to look as if they're doing something because you can't see thinking. A kind of meta-lesson in how to tell film stories too.

Some of the addiction scenes and hallucinations are a bit OTT for me. I think about the other two films you mention all the time though. In THE LOST WEEKEND it's the passage of time dissolve of shot-glass water rings on the bar. And for BIGGER THAN LIFE it's the whole dang film, Ray's masterpiece. A thoroughly weird auteur version of the kind of topical magazine-y issue drama that only gets made by Lifetime nowadays. One of the very rare films I've ever seen that has the guts to take its story even further than you think it will, right up to the edge.

Matt Bird said...

Sure, I agree that a few of the hallucination shots are a little over the top, but I just chalk that up to Powell's appealing oddness.

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