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.

A Matter of Life and Death aka Stairway to Heaven (1946)

After having watched and loved The Archers’ (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I decided that I will watch all of their movies sooner or later. I’m not sure I would have taken the same decision if I had seen A Matter of Life and Death aka Stairway to Heaven (the US title) first. It was too… Hmmm… Not sure what word I’m looking for here. It seems it is on position 20 of the BFI’s Top 100 list (yes, another list but one I like). Surprising.

The story is pretty simple. The RAF pilot and squadron leader Peter Carter (David Niven) tries to fly back to England in a burning Lancaster bomber. His crew has bailed out, one of his men is lying dead in the aircraft. Before deciding that he will bail out as well, despite the fact that he has no parachute, he manages to contact June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator, based in England. They talk for a while and immediately feel a very strong connection.

Lucky for Carter, his Other World guide misses him in the thick English fog and instead of being guided to heaven, Carter wakes up on a beach. He thinks at first he’s dead but then realizes that he has somehow survived and only minutes later he sees a girl on a bicycle riding along the beach. He runs after her and – what a coincidence – finds out it’s June. When it dawns on them that they had been speaking to each other just a while ago and that he should actually be dead, they fall in love immediately.

Although Carter seems unharmed, he has hallucinations in which he meets his guide who wants him to come to heaven with him. Carter refuses and wants to appeal before the superior court in heaven in order to be granted to stay alive. While Carter thinks he is visited by someone from the other world, June asks a friend, Doctor Reeves (Robert Livesey), for help. Reeves thinks that Carter suffers from a rare condition and needs surgery.

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when our two main characters fall in love so speedily and call each other “darling” only moments after having met. Still, it’s an amusing movie but the appeal for me was not in the story.

I liked that the real life scenes were shot in Technicolor, while the afterlife scenes were shot in black and white (reversing the effect in The Wizard of Oz) . The Archers’ use of color is quite special and I think they did a really great job here.

What was also interesting is the American-British theme. We all know that the British called the American soldiers “overpaid, oversexed and over here” and there was a lot of resentment going hand in hand with this expression. The Americans joined the war late and were fresh and crispy and had a lot of money and managed to seduce quite a lot of British girls, while the Brits had already fought for several years, were tired and worn out. The movie tried to reverse this in choosing to depict an American girl falling in love with a British officer. The heavenly court also plays heavily on this theme.

There is one sequence which is quite funny. The first heavenly jury has to be dismissed as the members are all from countries which had been wronged by the British at some point during history. The prosecutor is an American as well, Abraham Farlan, the first victim of the American Revolutionary war.

If you are a fan of The Archers or interested in British cinema and cinema of the 40s, don’t miss it. I think it’s interesting from the point of view of cinema history and amusing enough but I can’t say it was my cup of tea. As far as war romances go, I’ve seen movies I liked much more.

I couldn’t find  a trailer but you can watch the whole movie on YouTube. Here is Part I