The Small Back Room (1950): Movie Review

Guest blogger Cam Wilson writes:

The Small Back Room is a not-so-well-known but very engaging 1949 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. After bringing some big-budget movies to the screen, the director-writer duo decided to scale down to a moody and dark character study on their next picture. The Small Back Room was that film, and it delved deeply into the professional and personal life of troubled scientist and military bomb expert Sammy Rice.

David Farrar plays the flawed but sympathetic lead role with nuance. Farrar’s Rice is a brooding character, heavily dependent on alcohol and pills, which temporarily ease the chronic pain he suffers from an injury. Life is just barely tolerable for Rice, thanks to the support of his secretary female friend, played by Kathleen Byron. Their close but curious relationship only adds to the frustration that Rice faces daily. The only real diversion for Rice, besides his substance abuse, is his high pressure work researching and defusing live enemy bombs in the field. The tension is palpable in more than one scene, where he demonstrates his skill and calm in the face of danger.

Set in 1943 England, the war is in full swing, and Rice is called in by the government to investigate the new bombs that the Germans are dropping on the country. His nerves dulled by alcohol, he accepts the challenge, knowing that any outcome of his efforts, whether successful or fatal, would be a relief from his physical and mental torment.

The Small Back Room is a quiet, atmospheric exploration of what drives a person to extremes. The war setting is secondary to Sammy Rice battling his personal demons. Wonderful camera-work and first-rate editing heighten the suspense of bomb defusing scenes; alternately, a film noir style is adopted for Rice’s angished hours at home. The lack of musical score is key to the grittiness and realism of this drama, as is the excellent supporting cast, which includes Michael Gough, Jack Hawkins and Leslie Banks.

Nominated for a 1950 BAFTA Award as “Best British Film”, The Small Back Room is a gem that deserves a close examination by film fans.

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