Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Small Back Room

The 1949 The Small Back Room may be Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's best film (the competition is Black Narcissus, I'd say), but it lacks the exotic or fantastic subject matter with which the filmmakers are associated, and in fact makes a concerted effort to hunker down in the midst of everyday, tedious life. It's fun to describe it as a film about an alcoholic bomb defuser, but that logline misses the mood altogether.

The title points the way: the protagonists work in a tiny, barely furnished, anonymous office in 1943 London, for a government entity that exerts influence on the 1943 British war effort but escapes scrutiny. Explosives specialist Sammy Rice (David Farrar), still not adjusted to the loss of a leg and the relentless pain of wearing a prosthesis, is hiding in back-room life, hesitant to emerge from the shadow of his bosses, battling alcoholism, and unable to accept fully the love of his girlfriend and coworker Susan (Kathleen Byron).

The mundane world envelopes and practically mocks Sammy; and yet P&P characteristically give it a stylized appeal. Sammy is introduced sitting at a very crowded pub, appearing at the end of a low-angle tracking shot that follows a jostled bartender delivering a message. When Susan and an Army captain (a young Michael Gough) arrive at the bar to find Sammy, an overhead shot shows them taking the wrong path in the labyrinth of pubgoers before the bartender points Sammy out. There is no narrative reason for the wrong turn, but the mood of good-natured, oblivious, encompassing quotidian life will be developed, in restaurants where functionaries seek Sammy out for tidbits of information, or in clubs attended routinely by the lovers on Wednesday nights. One of the most striking scenes takes place in a lurching underground train where Sammy and Susan huddle in their seats, Sammy trying to ignore the pain in his leg. The camera surprises us by tracking in and out on the couple in the confined space, as hordes of Londoners evacuate the foreground of the shot at stops, then fill it again. Eventually the couple stand up, and the scene ends with the train light momentarily blinking out, casting Sammy and Susan into semi-darkness as the camera withdraws and the car hurtles on. This visual drama is expended on a rather simple and unassuming scene. In a way, P&P are playing at expressionism, externalizing the suffering of the fellow in the corner seat. But the routine of rush hour underground travel is unthreatening and depicted with amusing human detail. The mundane environment is not just a backdrop or a metaphor: it's part of the film's subject.

The Small Back Room is probably P&P's most intimate and human-scaled film, attentive to the ebb and flow of Sammy and Susan's struggle for survival as a couple: the small humiliations of office life; the uneasy symbolism of the man and woman's adjacent, connected apartments; the way pain is banked and nurtured when breakup becomes a possibility. But the profusion of scaled-down observation is the cover for a capital-R Romantic battle for Sammy's soul, rendered by Farrar and Byron with full-bodied emotionality. Farrar, an actor who naturally projects force and virility, alternates here between bitterness and a childlike vulnerability: Sammy clenches Susan's hand to ward off pain, or crumples on her breast with a barely audible sigh.

Just when alcohol and self-destructiveness are about to claim the love relationship, a slow-building suspense story emerges from among the subplots, announcing its primacy with a beautiful, unreal image: a lonely moonlit beach, with an unexploded German bomb protruding from the sand, marked with a flag and guarded by a soldier. The image speaks of paradise, of the bomb waiting for Sammy at the edge of the known world, far from the torture of his daily life. Beneath the beauty, there is a threat - the bombs have taken several lives already, and we have witnessed the last agonies of their most recent victim - but beneath the threat there is more beauty, as Sammy is plainly receiving his final wake-up call. The climax of the film, played out with the sound of the ocean and seagulls for counterpoint, manipulates point of view to place us, with Sammy and the bomb, on a peaceful metaphysical plain where all mundane concerns drop away. And if this intense transformation of the film's form should make us feel that Sammy's personal transformation might be possible as well, then so much the better for the drama.


Blake L. said...

It happens I just saw this again very recently, maybe a couple of months ago. Yes, it's just superb. While I think there is more competition at the top with BLACK NARCISSUS than you do (I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING, THE RED SHOES, COLONEL BLIMP--all conventional choices I know, but that doesn't mean they are not special films, I can't argue that this is a really good choice.

I mainly wanted to leave a comment that someone wrote on this in FILM COMMENT (I believe the previous issue) and it was disappointing after just seeing the film again. I thought what you said caught it much better; it resonated against my experience of the film, so was very pleasing to read.

I'm a sucker for movies about troubled love relationships running parallel to some external action, which does have an unexpected feel here as you intimate--at least when it's as well-done as it is in this movie.
It hasn't been done this well very often.

Well, I don't have anything profound to say, but here's an aside. I recently caught up with P & P's last film together--ILL MET BY MOONLIGHT, and it was a very rare instance where I was kind of let down. This was a much more conventional WWII movie, nothing bad about it exactly but it kind of bored me. Any thoughts on this, Dan? Do you think Powell and Pressburger as a team had run their course? Though I don't think Powell alone met that level later and found the easygoing AGE OF CONSENT modestly likeable at best, as much as it might have some familiar themes and a nude Helen Mirren...

Daniel said...

A beautiful piece Dan! This film was a real discovery for me.

Dan Sallitt said...

Blake - Gone to Earth is the last P&P film I love. Maybe the 50s weren't as good a context for their audacity, what with the general escalation of fantasy and emotive subject matter. Look how far Powell had to go with Peeping Tom (a film that never quite works for me) to be more outrageous than the norm.

I like Age of Consent quite a bit, though it's perhaps not as intense as my favorite work by Powell.