Small Back Room, The (1949)

An explosives expert must fight a personal battle with alcoholism in this minor WWII effort from Powell and Pressburger, which features one of the most suspenseful bomb disarmament scenes in early black-and-white cinema.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review #2,461

Dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
1949 | UK | Drama/Romance | 107 mins | 1.33:1 | English
Not rated – likely to be PG

Cast: David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins
Plot: As the Germans drop explosive booby traps on Britain in 1943, the embittered expert who’ll have to disarm them fights a private battle with alcohol.
Nom. for Best British Film (BAFTAs)
Distributor: Studiocanal

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Alcoholism; Personal Duty
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

What can be more frightening than disarming a live bomb?  A debilitating battle with alcoholism, if it was up to David Farrar’s Sammy Rice. 

An explosives expert who hasn’t gone out into the field for quite some time, Sammy has been doing research for an unidentified R&D unit in a ‘small back room’.  In his spare time, he goes to drink at a local bar. 

His unit’s secretary, Susan (Kathleen Byron), is in love with him, though she is getting intolerant of his attitudes toward work and life.  As an air of constant resignation encircles Sammy, he is somewhat piqued by a new ‘booby trap’ bomb developed by the Germans that has killed a number of civilians and soldiers. 

A minor effort by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Small Back Room followed a hattrick of Technicolor triumphs by the duo, namely A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). 

“Well, there’s nothing like taking a nice quiet bomb apart to steady the nerves.”

It was hard to continue to top these films, so perhaps that was why the filmmakers decided to make a more modest picture—and revert to black-and-white—for this WWII drama that is more accurately a character study. 

Farrar and Byron are excellent, and in some ways, help the film across its more awkward portions (cue Powell and Pressburger trying out a scene of surrealism where a gigantic wine bottle terrorises Sammy) or scenes of uninspired dialogue. 

I wasn’t particularly compelled by The Small Back Room, but I must say it features one of the most suspenseful bomb disarmament scenes of the period, in which the tension is nearly comparable to that of, say, Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953).

Grade: B

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