THE SMALL BACK ROOM (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
a commentary by Tony McRae

Sammy Rice has a tin foot which constantly gives him trouble.  He takes pain killers.  He'd rather have whisky.  Lots of it. Rice is a research scientist and bomb expert, and right now he's needed because the Nazi Luftwaffe has been dropping thermos-like, booby-trapped bombs along the British coastline; when they are picked up, the result is instant death.  British intelligence is convinced the Nazis are deliberately targeting children so as to demoralize the country.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made twelve movies set during WW2.  Unlike the patriotic pictures that were to boost morale during the war (e.g., "49th Parallel," "One of Our Aircraft is Missing," "The Silver Fleet,") "The Small Back Room" was made several years later.  The screenplay, taken from a Nigel Balchin novel (a writer Powell considered on a par with Graham Greene) tells of the trials of the eccentric Sammy Rice (David Farrar) and his relationship with his lover Susan (Kathleen Byron).  Sammy has pent-up nerves which he hides (except when he's with Susan) from his colleagues by pretending a nonchalant, sardonic temperament.  Since he's a brilliant engineer he can pull it off.  Only when he is with Susan can he show his true nature (though he refuses to remove his limb in her presence).  The rest of the time he has to put up with bureaucrats and army brass who know little of the mechanics of disabling bombs.  

Powell admitted that his main reason for doing "The Small Back Room" was the bomb disposal sequence that takes place toward the end of the film.  He had already picked a site, Chesil Bank, a geological oddity that fits perfectly Powell's dramatic setting.  While this sequence, beautifully shot by Christopher Challis, gets us squirming in our seats, the film's heart is the love affair.  

Like many of Powell's strong heroines, Susan is intelligent, insightful, beautiful, and tolerant, this last trait a must in dealing with her tortured lover.  Sammy is driven, paradoxically, by both self-pity and a willingness to sacrifice himself.  He comes to life when he sets out to defuse one of the bombs.  Once he is away from the drama of being the star player, the savior of his country, once he returns to being a mere mortal, he turns into a pathetic human lacking in confidence.  He is not willing to let Susan help him, even though he knows she loves him deeply. 

But Susan is persistent.  While Sammy is ready to give his life for the war effort, he is not willing to give himself to Susan.  Susan, on the other hand, is ready to offer her life for Sammy, that is, she is willing to sacrifice herself, and in so doing Sammy begins to understand and control his own anxiety. 

David Farrar and Kathleen Byron give to their roles a level of realism that is not always present in a Powell-Pressburger picture.  Sammy will no doubt continue in his sardonic ways, but the self-pity is already beginning to fade.  And it seems, finally, he will be able to remove his artificial limb in the presence of Susan.

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