The Small Back Room (1948)

Vintage classic The Small Back Room, Powell and Pressburger’s must-see 1948 noir masterpiece, has been restored and released in new 4K.

We Could Be Heroes

by Alexa Dalby

The Small Back Room

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Set during WWII in 1943, but made in 1948, this Powell and Pressburger adaptation of Nigel Balchin’s hugely popular 1943 novel of the same name did not find favour in its time: it was a dark war film for a traumatised and damaged post-war British nation who were sick of war.

Shot in moody black and white, which suits the subject, it feels urgent, disillusioned: its protagonists wonder how to live and survive. The central character, government weapons scientist Sammy Rice (David Farrar), has a painful tin foot, courtesy of a previous bomb explosion and he’s an alcoholic, haunted by his sense of failure. His (secret) supportive girlfriend Susan (Kathleen Byron) is the departmental secretary, overlooked as a woman.

Every frame of the film is exquisite and moves the story along – the expressionistic lighting also tells the story (cinematography by Christopher Challis). There are scenes that linger in the mind: the visit by the buffoonish minister (Robert Morley); Rice’s controversial lost evening fighting the temptation of the giant whisky bottle; Army manoeuvres at Stonehenge; and the gripping, tense 17-minute scene of Rice, as a bomb-disposal expert, with a hangover being summoned to delicately deactivate a new type of German booby-trap bomb on Chesil Bank, which has already killed the Army expert Rice knew. (I may be taking this too literally, probably am, but given that it was a deserted location, why not try a controlled explosion, rather than risk a life: but maybe the bomb was too dangerous to be left. And of course this is the crucial sequence of the film.)

Memorable too is the scene in the department’s basement office as two men try to discuss a very personal issue, ignoring the tap of feet walking backwards and forwards on the pavement above, across the inlaid glass skylight.  They don’t seem to notice this everyday occurrence, showing how cramped and forgotten this department was – yet its members were making enormous personal sacrifices to win the war. Back room boys indeed.

The Small Back Room is now acknowledged as one of Powell and Pressburger’s masterpieces. It also stars Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough and Cyril Cusack in early-career roles. Given the anniversary of D-Day on 6 June, its release is very timely. Regardless, it’s a must-see.

The Small Back Room previewed on 28 May in the BFI”s Powell and Pressburger season (from October to December 2024) and is released on 3 June 2024 in the UK and on DVD and Blu-Ray by Studio Canal.

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