Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Small Back Room

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Small Back Room

Appropriately enough, given its title, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Small Back Room is one of their quieter and less celebrated films. Following the Technicolor extravagance of Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, the directing/producing/writing duo adapted a well-known novel, shot in black-and-white and kept the scale down. It's the story of Sammy Rice, a wartime munitions expert with a game leg; he can't actually fight in the war, though he certainly does his part (working for a government agency which markets and analyzes weapons systems, emphasis on the former). He's a pro on the job, but a self-doubting, neurotic alcoholic on his own time.


Though an adaptation, The Small Back Room shares storytelling technique with other Powell & Pressburger classics of the forties. Its plot, to the extent it has one, unfolds in the most peculiar manner - there is no apparent structure at work and the films seem to be created more around characters than a particular story. I recently read that War and Peace was originally criticized for being "shapeless" but I think a better word would be "lumpy." The Small Back Room is also lumpy (as is The Life and Death of Col. Blimp
): incidents unfold, but they don't seem to build. The Small Back Room has a climax, and it's certainly a tense one as Rice sits stoically on a beach, nursing a hangover, and attempts to defuse a bomb. But until that last act there is little sense of how one scene will lead into another or where exactly the film is going. And it's not just the plotting; technical decisions often take on a whimsical and idiosyncratic air as well. One thinks of the decision, despite the team's flair for gorgeous color, to shoot the realistic wartime scenes in A Matter of Life and Death in color and the lavish fantasy (or is it fantasy?) in crisp black-and-white. I often find myself instinctively at odds with these movies and then drawn to them in a weird way. The movies are very odd ducks, with a cheerfully wry approach that's hard to pin down.

At their best, Powell & Pressburger films are very charming. Though it was certainly not the case, they seem almost ignorant of conventional plot mechanics and there's a brazen, naive quality to them as stories unfold in a manner suited to boyish fantasy. Flamboyant sequences arrive without proper fanfare, such as the scene in this film when Rice is confronted by a towering bottle of whiskey - a prop several times his height, plopped down in the middle of all this wartime realism. Because the story is more limited, and Rice is a more cynical character than Col. Blimp or the nun in Black Narcissus or the dancer in The Red Shoes, The Small Back Room feels a bit more uneven than it should. The best Powell & Pressburger movies tend to reflect back the wondrousness of their characters. This movie is more like a Carol Reed project that Powell stepped in to direct.

But the results are interesting and there is something very engaging about the relationship between Rice and his secret girlfriend Susan (Kathleen Boyd). Besides, Powell (who is generally considered the filmmaking chops behind Pressburger & Powell) is full of great ideas, some arguably too clever, but none boring. In the first few minutes of No Country for Old Men, I thought to myself, "God, the Coen brothers could direct a phonebook and still display their genius." Powell is the same way - every close-up, wide angle, establishing shot, long take, and sound effect works marvellously - cinema realizing its endlessly inventive potential. Of course, The Small Back Room is not a phone book! Also, its more limited scale is actually part of the enjoyment. There's something cozy about the idea of this "small back room" somewhere - which is of course part of Rice's problem...he wants to be part of something bigger and feels he's selling himself short by kowtowing to the weapons manufacturers (his girlfriend agrees).

There's also one more way in which The Small Back Room burnishes its offbeat credentials. Many World War II movies continued to be made after World War II ended (this one came out in 1949) but they were usually more about combat and army life than the homefront. I've seen few movies that strive so hard to evoke the mood and ambiance of a very recent bygone era. There are the frequent nods to the Soviets as "our allies" (if you've been wondering through this whole review, who these Powell & Pressburger folks are, the film is British). Obviously this would have been very unusual a mere six years later when the UK was allied with the U.S. in a Cold War against the dirty commies. And the sense of a bumbling wartime bureaucracy is ever-present, as are the blackouts, air raids, and the general sense of a country at war even if it's not in battle. Think of a movie about the beginning of the Iraq war which strove to capture the mood and images of the time, as perceived by people in America. It makes sense, because some things change so rapidly in just a few years, but it's surreal too because recent memory feels odd when put into a historical perspective (perhaps the upcoming W. will have this effect - its trailer certainly does.)

The Small Back Room is certainly not sanitized (and it's hard to imagine this film being made during the war effort - though the filmmakers did get away with Col. Blimp). Nonetheless, there is a nostalgic flavor to it all and perhaps it's not entirely on condition of the war. The forties was coming to an end, and with it an era in which British citizens stood solidly, however grumpily, together in the face of an existential foe. And as this period passed into history, so - soon enough - would Powell and Pressburger's successful partnership (and mutual success) fade away, though the highly acclaimed Tales of Hoffmann was still before them. The Small Back Room is not exactly a requiem for its makers or its era, but it does sound a mournful note or two as it casts its glance back at the waters just under the bridge, yet already rushing off towards the horizon.

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