Small Back Room [1949]

In their career, the Archers--Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger--made films both epic and intimate. The Small Back Room falls into the latter category. The interiors in this black-and-white picture, after a trio in Technicolor, are close and dimly lit, but rustic exteriors (including Stonehenge) and a surrealistic set piece add welcome flair. In 1943, Londoner Sammy Rice (David Farrar, quite good), a master at defusing incendiary devices, works for the Ministry of Defense. Whiskey helps to relieve the discomfort of a leg injury caused, presumably, by a mission gone wrong. As he tells girlfriend Susan (Kathleen Byron, softer than in Black Narcissus), who serves as secretary for the back-room boys, "It leaves me not caring whether it hurts or not." In order to decode Germany's new booby-trapped bomb, the military enlists his expertise, but Rice's drinking problem makes him a liability. Noir, suspense, and documentary-style realism converge to create a sympathetic portrait of one man's struggle with shame and inadequacy, providing a link between Brief Encounter and The Lost Weekend. As critic Raymond Durgnat suggests, it isn't "a 'story one follows', but a sensibility in which one bathes." This shadowy room may not be the best place to begin with the Archers, but it's a fine place with which to end. The Criterion Collection edition adds erudite commentary from author Charles Barr, an essay from Sight & Sound editor Nick James, an interview with cinematographer Chris Challis, and dictation excerpts from Powell's memoir, Million Dollar Movie. --Kathleen C. Fennessy

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