The Small Back Room (1949)

25 05 2009

I’ve only seen a few films from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and coincidentally, each has been in black and white. This isn’t the smartest plan on my part, as it seems the Archers became famous for lavish technicolor epics like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, but I have some (perhaps bizarre?) aversion to early Technicolor. So far I’ve managed to dodge all of their bright and vibrantly photographed pictures for ones that are, perhaps only on the surface, gritty and more realistic. The Small Back Room, made right after one of their most of colorful pictures, is a perfect example of this.

While I still believe this is a very realistic picture, I have to confess that it is undeniably melodramatic and well, not very realistic. While I usually see the heightening of dramatic events as a negative, they’re not much of a problem here. The Archers never really depend on physical events to carry their narrative. Instead, a majority of development comes from the psychological strain on the film’s protagonist, Sammy Rice, an alcoholic bomb expert is called in to diagnose a new German weapon. Sammy’s fall from sanity is depicted in a rather silly manner. In one of the few call backs to the Archers’ previous fantasy endeavors, Sammy’s whiskey bottle physically towers over him.

There’s a few other dubious and awkward instances of symbolic imagery, but it never really derails the tone from its main track. Its not exactly an downbeat or downplayed drama, but it manages to maintain a simplistic and believable atmosphere. The problems between Sammy and his girlfriend / secretary, Susan, aren’t exactly explored to the point of making this a “complicated relationship” film, but there’s enough tension between the two to add to Sammy’s ever-growing stress level.

In this sense, the story plays out not unlike a western from Anthony Mann. It’s definitely a work of “genre” and/or “populist” cinema but there’s enough care and attention devoted to the character(s) that it manages to come off just as much as a true work of art. It probably helps a good deal that the film is astonishingly beautiful, probably even more so than A Canterbury Tale, which gets a lot more praise. Sure, this isn’t exactly a bank-busting, career sacrifice work of personal expression, but it is probably more effective (to the public, at least) as an escapist film that has bursts of personal emotions.

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