March 9, 2009

0 A Small Dark Masterwork: Michael Powell's The Small Back Room

The British film director Michael Powell (1905-1990)—who not only directed but also wrote and produced many of his films, often in collaboration with his professional partner, Emeric Pressburger—was one of the giants of British cinema. His best known, and arguably greatest, works were produced in the 1940's and constitute a truly impressive list, including The Thief of Baghdad, The 49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I'm Going, Stairway to Heaven, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes. At the end of the decade, Powell and Pressburger made a less well-known movie, The Small Back Room (1949), released last year in a newly restored Criterion edition, that is a fitting companion piece to those earlier masterpieces.

The Small Back Room is very different from the best-known films that immediately preceded it, which are often thought to represent the typical Michael Powell movie. With the exception of I Know Where I'm Going, these are elaborately mounted, technically dazzling, large-scale Technicolor productions that pushed the artistic limits of studio film making of the time. The Small Back Room is none of these things. Filmed in black-and-white and without major stars, it concentrates not on large themes and visual spectacle like its immediate predecessors but on characters, character psychology, and personal relationships.

Set in London in 1943, the movie is based on a novel by Nigel Balchin, a British author who wrote seventeen novels published between 1934-1967, as well as more than a dozen screenplays. The main character is Sammy Rice (David Farrar), whose prosthetic foot has kept him from active military service. He works instead as a researcher in an obscure government munitions laboratory situated in the small back room of the title. Sammy also has a problem with alcohol—he is a recovered alcoholic—and a huge problem with his attitude toward life. He is a frustrated and embittered man whose personality is dominated by negativity and self-pity. a brooding, self-destructive person whom others tolerate out of a combination of sympathy for his very real problems and admiration for his professional ability.

Sammy is conducting a clandestine affair with the secretary of his research unit, Susan (Kathleen Byron, who gave a memorable if a trifle overwrought performance as the mad nun in Powell's Black Narcissus), who lives in the flat across the hall from his own. Susan genuinely seems to love Sammy, tolerating his negativity and moodiness with equanimity. Besides Susan, the one thing that keeps Sammy going is a real interest in his research work. But even that is fraught with problems, mostly the result of bureaucratic regulations, inter-departmental in-fighting, and the ignorance of those in charge about the nature and value of the work his unit is doing.

In a very funny sequence, a fatuous government minister (Robert Morley, in an uncredited cameo) who clearly has no grasp of the work being done by Sammy and his colleagues pays a flying visit to the lab. Knowing the minister's lack of any real knowledge of, or even interest in, their work, the group devise a flashy demonstration that is almost like a magic show, with fire and smoke to dazzle him. The demonstration fizzles, but the minister is so uninterested that it doesn't even faze him. Instead he sits down at a calculating machine—to him a real novelty—and proceeds to perform simple arithmetic problems, like a child playing with a toy, before flitting on his way. In another, more serious sequence, Sammy attends a meeting to evaluate a new artillery gun and is caught in a conflict between the military, who don't like the new weapon based on their tests of it, and the accountants, who do favor it based strictly on a statistical analysis of its design specifications. He sympathizes with the military's practical objections to the gun but realizes he can't afford to alienate the bureaucrats if he wants them to continue funding his research unit.

Sammy does find one assignment that intrigues him, when an army Captain, Dick Stewart (Michael Gough), consults him about a new type of bomb being dropped by the Germans. Innocuous-looking, like a Thermos flask, it has been killing children who pick it up not realizing what it is. Sammy arranges for the Captain to contact him the next time one is found so he can examine it and analyze its detonating mechanism. This element of the story is used as a device to provide continuity. It opens the movie, recurs at a couple of key points in the middle, and provides the movie with its masterly concluding sequence.

The movie has an episodic structure, moving back and forth between Sammy's work, his love life, the problem of the new type of bomb, and his struggles with alcoholism and what today would be recognized as clinical depression. If the film has a weakness, it is this episodic structure. which tends to fragment the movie's momentum by giving its plot a rather fluctuating rhythm. But at the same time, this structure also provides opportunities for Powell to create several brilliant set pieces that clearly show what a cinematic genius he was.

Actually, this sense of disconnection between bravura moments and the more low-key sections that link them is to some degree characteristic of most of Powell's movies; it's just that in this one it's especially apparent. As the film moves from one spectacular sequence to another, the lulls in-between are just a little more obvious than in most of Powell's movies. And these sequences of heightened artistry seem on occasion a bit overdone, just a little more fancy than absolutely necessary. For example, when Sammy attends the test of that new artillery gun "on the Salisbury Plain," Powell uses Stonehenge as a backdrop for the tests, as though he felt constrained to increase the visual drama in a sequence that might have been just as effective without the distraction of unneeded embellishment. (IMDb claims that these scenes were actually filmed at Stonehenge. I may be wrong, but to me it has a slightly unreal look to it, the stones a bit too smoothly worn and the color a bit too even, and the stones seem to lack substance, as though they're made of something lighter than rock, like those fiberglass boulders you see at Disneyland.)

Taken separately, however, several sequences in the movie achieve genuine tour-de-force status. Two sequences set in a night club (night clubs seemed to be a staple of movies of the 1940's, especially ones with noirish overtones, as this one sometimes has) that Sammy and Susan go to are impressive for their elaborate set decoration, jazz music, staging, and photography. In the second one especially the elegant setting and frenetic jazz music provide a superb counterpoint to the heated quarrel that Sammy and Susan are having. In another great sequence, Sammy falls off the wagon and gets drunk in a pub filled with soldiers of all nations. His drunken row with the bartender, who refuses to serve him any more, and his aggressive behavior toward the other people in the pub are dramatic indeed and show just how hostile and obnoxious Sammy can be at his worst.

In another sequence—visually, the most striking of the movie—Sammy has an attack of severe anxiety when Susan fails to show up at his flat for a planned rendezvous and again ends up getting drunk. The sequence begins with what seems a nod to The Lost Weekend, with Sammy attempting to resist the temptation to drink, then becoming more and more agitated, and finally giving in and getting so drunk that he smashes up the flat and begins hallucinating.

Powell goes all out to portray the nightmarish, surrealistic qualities of this hallucinatory state, using bizarre camera angles and arranging objects in the frame to produce extreme foreshortening of perspective and distortion of scale. At one point the camera is placed quite low, looking up at a huge bottle of whiskey that appears about three times the size of Sammy and looms over him as if it is about to crush him. The background detail in the frame is stylized, the whole illuminated by what Powell calls "Caligari lighting" (a reference to the 1920 German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). In the commentary that accompanies the DVD, the cinematographer, Christopher Challis, explains that the scene, which ostensibly takes place in Sammy's flat, was actually done on a different set, with Sammy and the bottle filmed separately then joined in a matte composition to get them in the frame together. Challis praises Powell for his "visual sense" and for having such a thorough knowledge of lighting and photography that he could describe in detail what he needed his cinematographer to do to get the exact visual effects he wanted.

The film's conclusion, a more than 15-minute long sequence, is another thrilling tour-de-force. Two of the mysterious German bombs have been found on Chesil Beach on the south coast, where Sammy is summoned. When he arrives, he finds that Capt. Stewart has been killed trying to defuse the first bomb, and that he will have to work alone to figure out the detonating mechanism on the remaining bomb. Chesil Beach is an eight-mile long stretch of what the British call shingle, large pieces of unstable gravel, and a worse site for trying to work on something as dangerously sensitive to movement as an unexploded bomb cannot be imagined. Powell has said that it was this scene in the book and the prospect of filming it on Chesil Beach (his own idea—in the book, the setting is an ordinary sandy beach) that first attracted him to the project.

Powell uses all of his considerable narrative and visual resources to create a lengthy nail-biter of a sequence so tense that it had me squirming the whole time. The stark beachfront setting—reduced to its essential elements of shoreline, sea, and sky—with Sammy separated in space from his colleagues, with whom he communicates via a radio microphone as he describes to them his actions, isolates and emphasizes the element of danger until it is the only thing in the movie. After Sammy reaches the bomb and drops to his hands and knees, much of the scene is filmed in tight close-up—his face, his hands, the bomb looming in the foreground almost like the whiskey bottle did earlier.

The mechanism turns out to be more complicated than Sammy anticipated. Just when he thinks he has disarmed the bomb, he discovers it has a second detonator, and the sequence is extended even longer. Knowing that Sammy cares so little for his life, that he is more interested in the engineering of the weapon than in his own safety, only emphasizes the risks he is taking, creating a sequence of nearly unbearable suspense.

This and the other sequences I have described constitute the highlights of the movie. But what really holds the movie together more than anything else is the character of Sammy and his portrayal by David Farrar. Sammy is a very modern character for the time, a self-centered and essentially unsympathetic (although not exactly unlikable) person, the kind of tortured character more often associated with the most bitter American films noirs of the era. Farrar conveys with absolute conviction and realism Sammy's self-loathing, his dissatisfaction with life, and his inability to relate on any intimate level to other human beings.

On the DVD, Powell comments almost regretfully that when he saw The Small Back Room years later at a retrospective of his movies, he found it a "cold" film. Given its subject matter and its main character, I don't see how the movie could have been otherwise and still have maintained its honesty. From today's perspective, the picture seems ahead of its time in its attitudes. That coldness that Powell spoke of—the resistance to using easy sentimentality to lighten the grimness of the movie that so often tempted his film-making contemporaries—is to me what makes the movie seem so fresh and still comprehensible in psychological terms to our more cynical modern sensibility.

This is a movie that despite falling just a bit short of Powell's very best work, nonetheless has many parts that are as good as anything he ever did, as well as a main character as original and compelling as any to be found in his canon. With such qualities, The Small Back Room deserves to be admired and enjoyed alongside Powell's other masterworks.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have a website devoted to their work, . Powell's widow and tireless advocate of his films is the three-time Oscar-winning film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who has edited nearly all the films of Martin Scorsese since Raging Bull. If you've never seen a Michael Powell movie, I would recommend starting with I Know Where I'm Going or The Red Shoes, which along with Peeping Tom (which I have also written about at The Movie Projector), are my favorite Michael Powell movies of the ones I've seen. Kathleen Byron died last January at the age of 88. Her final appearance was in the award-winning BBC mini-series Perfect Strangers (2001).


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