Criterion // 1949 // 107 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dylan Charles (Retired) // August 19th, 2008
Sammy Rice: I must have a drink. Ask me to have a drink, woman.
Susan: Have a drink, Sammy.
Sammy Rice: Whisky?
Sammy Rice: No thanks, Susan.
The Small Back Room is a post-World War II movie that takes place at the height of the war in wary London. Directed by Michael Powell (who has redeemed himself fully after what I call The Red Ensign Fiasco), The Small Back Room is as noir as they come and focuses tightly on the mind of a broken man.
Sammy Rice (David Farrar) is a brilliant man with a bit of a drinking problem. He works for a government outfit that designs new toys for the military, and his newest job is to crack the secret of a new German weapon. But he's constantly at odds with his bosses, his girlfriend Susan (Kathleen Byron), and himself.
I have seen a smattering of Michael Powell's movies and each one is so varied, so different from the one that preceded it that I have begun to wonder if Powell suffered from a kind of schizophrenia. The last two movies of his I saw were the abominable Red Ensign and the lighthearted thriller The Phantom Light. Now Powell has shifted on me once again into a dark look at a man's struggle for redemption.
The man in question is Sammy Rice, an alcoholic with a tin leg that's constantly at odds with his surroundings. Farrar takes us on a trip with Sammy, through drunken bouts and sarcastic quips and violent rages. Apparently, Powell was unhappy with Farrar's performance, but I can find no fault with him. Sammy's one source of strength, the one thing that keeps him from falling into the abyss, is Susan.
Kathleen Byron is a force to be reckoned with, her character tolerating Sammy's madness if only to try and bring him up from the gutter and make him more. Their relationship is both improbable (Why does Susan put up with that rascal?) and believable through the performances of Byron and Farrar.
And it would be nearly criminal to not mention the rest of the cast. The supporting cast is as good as the stars with performances by Michael Gough (Alfred in the Burton Batman films), Jack Hawkins, and a Mr. Leslie Banks, who I last saw in Red Ensign. Jack Hawkins is especially memorable as the PR man for Sammy's group of back room boys, ignorant of the weapons he peddles to the army and indifferent to that ignorance so long as he gets them sold.
Powell has created a suitably dark world for Sammy to live in. The inky blackness seems to close in on him in his worst moments and Criterion's transfer serves it well with a nice, clean transfer. In one memorable scene that drew fire back in the day, Sammy suffers a hallucinatory delusion that takes the audience on a ride through a Salvador Dali painting with giant whiskey bottles and tables tilted at impossible angles.
Powell juxtaposes the cramped scenes in dark rooms with shots of the English countryside, Stonehenge, and Chesil Bank. Perhaps the best and most nerve-wracking scene takes place at Chesil Bank, where, on a beach made up of small round pebbles, Sammy must defuse an extremely finicky bomb.
If it seems like I'm focused on Powell, it's because it's obvious he took great care with the movie's creation. The Small Back Room is always gripping, always tense, and never bogs down. Sammy goes from his battles with the administration to his battles with Susan to his battles with the new bomb in a logical manner that never loses the audience. By the time Sammy gets to the point where he must defuse the bomb, I was incapable of sitting still. It's a fast-paced ride as Sammy tries to destroy and then save himself.
At its very best, Criterion provides extras that enhance the viewer's knowledge and appreciation of the movie. Rather than loading it all down with cast and crew listings cribbed from IMDb, inane making-of featurettes that function solely as advertising, and uncut, unrated versions, Criterion gives up a commentary by a film scholar, an interview with the cinematographer who was also a friend of the director, and excerpts from the director's autobiography. My personal recommendation is to watch them all in that order, as it leads to the best understanding of what each of them talks about.
This is one of the best movies I've seen, both in construction and in artistry. Powell didn't just make a solid film, he made a damned good piece of art to boot. It's an excellent piece of film noir with strong leads and a beautiful presentation by Criterion; you can do little wrong by picking this one up.
Judge Charles finds The Small Back Room not guilty and offers to buy it a drink.
Review content copyright © 2008 Dylan Charles; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Discs: #13
* Top 100 Films: #1
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1949
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary featuring Film Scholar Charles Barr
* New Video Interview with Cinematographer Chris Challis
* Excerpts from Michael Powell's Audio Dictations for his Autobiography