The Small Back Room (1949)

In the comments to my recent post on The Archers’ A Matter of Life and Death Guy Savage (Phoenix Cinema) mentioned another of their movies, The Small Back Room based on Nigel Balchin’s eponymous novel. Since I have just read Balchin’s novel on the London Blitz, Darkness Falls From the Air, I was interested in watching The Small Back Room. While I had my problems with A Matter of Life and Death I really liked The Small Back Room a lot. Some say it’s one of the minor movies of Pressburger and Powell. Maybe that is true. It certainly is lesser known but I think that is a shame as it contains many interesting elements. It’s not as exuberant, flashy and over the top as many of the other movies, It’s much darker and thoughtful.

Sammy Rice is an embittered bomb disposal expert, the very best, the British have. He has lost a foot in the war and the constant pain and shame about being not intact make him a cranky fellow. The fact that he is taking heavy medication against the pain which he mixes with strong alcohol doesn’t make things better. Even his very patient girlfriend Susan, who works for the government as well, starts to lose patience. Sammy is part of a research team investigating German booby-traps. They are deadly devices and so far the mechanism isn’t known but it gets more and more urgent to find out what sets them off.

Hi battle with alcoholism, his fear of being alone and his struggles at work put the relationship with Susan under a lot of pressure. Finally she cannot take it any longer and leaves him. While he is on one of his pub crawls, one of the German booby-traps is found on a beach. Sammy needs to clean up as fast as he can and get to the place and deactivate the device.

In many movies set in war-time London we see bombings, people running to air raid shelters. Not in this one. Despite of this it captures the feeling of war-time London perfectly well. The light is dark, many of the shots are rather gloomy, people are dispirited, depressed. The bars are full and everyone seems to indulge in heavy drinking. Sammy may be more extreme than others but I’m sure there was more than one maimed soldier returning from the war, who took it less than gracefully. While Sammy does wallow in self-pity one can still understand him.

I liked the depiction of the relationship a lot. This isn’t a war-time romance but the relationship between two people who seem to have seen a lot, even too much already and whose only consiôlation is their relationship.

One of the best scenes is the bomb disposal scene which is handled in a very interesting way.

This is a very different Archers, it’s sober and dark, not much humor in it. It’s well worth watching though, it has a lot of interesting details and I’m sure it’s even one which will improve when seen a second time.

While I couldn’t find a trailer, I found the whole movie on YouTube.

21 thoughts on “The Small Back Room (1949)

  1. nem baj says:

    I’m not very comfortable with this one. It is certainly a war movie, as it deals a lot with a man’s ability to put his body and his mind in the service of his country’s defence, in spite of his addiction, his disability, and his resentment for the political games involved in his job.

    And it is indeed wonderfully shot and acted, with this unique mix of dry realism (the pub, the Whitehall meeting, the dialogs beetween Susan and Sammy) and poetic allegories (Stonehenge, Chesil bay) so dear to the filmmakers. Yet for all its gloom, claustrophobia and depression – it’s undoubtedly a Noir film – I find it very, well… optimistic to say the least.

    In the end, neither Susan nor Sammy seem to have been the least damaged by the ordeals they went through; and Sammy (re-)joins the ranks of the virile heroes needed for victory without any reservation. I’ve never been satisfied by this ‘toll-free’ redemption, which is not only due to the ending but to the progress of the story as a whole.

    • I didn’t see it as optimistic, although what you say is true. is he really not damaged? There is still the very last moment when he sees that Susan has bought a brand new bottle of brandy for him. How is that optimistic? He will still be a drunk. That’s probably seeing the end with a modern mind, I suppose alcoholism, if it still let you perform your job and not get too much of a nuisance in public was far less of a problem then. On the other hand, why could it not be optimistic. This whole bomb disposal is a crucial moment, it could be aturning point for the better.

      • nem baj says:

        Indeed the bottle of scotch and her framed picture are back, which means they can resume their ritual. But something has happened, and the ritual already failed. Shouldn’t this mean that they had to reach a new balance beetween them? I see no hint in that direction.

        Sure, the fact that he eventually follows her advice is news, but there’s a high probability that things will soon repeat identically. With a higher toll on both of them*. Since there’s no hint about that as well, I find it strangely optimistic. 🙂

        (*) Until Susan is reincarnated as Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus (same actors). Or as Helen in Peeping Tom (another woman attracted to an addict). But that would be very pessimistic…

      • Come to think of it, more than pessimistic or optimistic, it’s actually a surprising ending, surprisingly realistic. Imagine this had been a Hollywood production, they would live happily ever after withouth the bottle. And the cat would be replaced by children.
        I need to watch black narcissus and The Red Shoes one of these days.

  2. the war movie buff says:

    had never heard of this. Thanks to Guy and you. Good additional commnets by Nem. I am not a big Powell and Pressburger fan nor a Balchin fan, but the film intrigues me. Keep those obscure films coming.

  3. Guy Savage says:

    There are some fundamental differences between the book and the film. The book, for example, includes Sammy’s brother, so coming through the war unscathed doesn’t happen in the book at all. The film was not a success as the audience of the time had had enough of WWII–even though the film is ostensibly the story of a tortured relationship with the war as backdrop.

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