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The Small Back Room (The Criterion Collection)

4.3 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

After the lavish Technicolor spectacle of The Red Shoes, British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger retreated into the inward, shadowy recesses of this moody, crackling character study. Based on the acclaimed novel by Nigel Balchin, The Small Back Room details the professional and personal travails of troubled, alcoholic research scientist and military bomb-disposal expert Sammy Rice (David Farrar), who, while struggling with a complex relationship with secretary-girlfriend Susan (Kathleen Byron), is hired by the government to advise on a dangerous new German weapon. Frank and intimate, deftly mixing suspense and romance, The Small Back Room is an atmospheric, post World War II gem.

New, restored high-definition digital transfer,
Audio commentary featuring film scholar Charles Barr,
New video interview with cinematographer Chris Challis,
Excerpts from Michael Powell's audio dictations for his autobiography.
PLUS: A new essay by film scholar Nick James.

In their career, the Archers--Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger--made films both epic and intimate. The Small Back Room falls into the latter category. The interiors in this black-and-white picture, after a trio in Technicolor, are close and dimly lit, but rustic exteriors (including Stonehenge) and a surrealistic set piece add welcome flair. In 1943, Londoner Sammy Rice (David Farrar, quite good), a master at defusing incendiary devices, works for the Ministry of Defense. Whiskey helps to relieve the discomfort of a leg injury caused, presumably, by a mission gone wrong. As he tells girlfriend Susan (Kathleen Byron, softer than in Black Narcissus), who serves as secretary for the back-room boys, "It leaves me not caring whether it hurts or not." In order to decode Germany’s new booby-trapped bomb, the military enlists his expertise, but Rice's drinking problem makes him a liability. Noir, suspense, and documentary-style realism converge to create a sympathetic portrait of one man's struggle with shame and inadequacy, providing a link between Brief Encounter and The Lost Weekend. As critic Raymond Durgnat suggests, it isn’t "a 'story one follows', but a sensibility in which one bathes." This shadowy room may not be the best place to begin with the Archers, but it's a fine place with which to end. The Criterion Collection edition adds erudite commentary from author Charles Barr, an essay from Sight & Sound editor Nick James, an interview with cinematographer Chris Challis, and dictation excerpts from Powell's memoir, Million Dollar Movie. --Kathleen C. Fennessy

Special Features


Product Details

  • Actors: David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Leslie Banks, Henry Caine
  • Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
  • Format: Multiple Formats, AC-3, Black & White, Dolby, Full Screen, NTSC
  • Language: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated:
    Not Rated
  • Studio: Criterion Collection
  • DVD Release Date: August 19, 2008
  • Run Time: 107 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B0019X400I
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #37,502 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "The Small Back Room (The Criterion Collection)" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Miles D. Moore on September 1, 2008
Format: DVD
It was a surprise for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to follow up the Technicolor extravaganzas of "Black Narcissus" and "The Red Shoes" with a throwback to their earlier work--the black-and-white, tightly focused World War II drama "The Small Back Room." Perhaps the film served as sort of a palate cleanser before they moved on to "The Tales of Hoffmann," a film so rococo that it made "The Red Shoes" look modest. However, "The Small Back Room" is still a riveting, superbly made, character-driven thriller that is worth anyone's time.

Set in the early spring of 1943, the film tells the story of Sammy Rice, a bomb expert sinking into drink and despair after a failed effort to defuse a bomb caused one of his feet to be blown off, leaving him in constant agony. In his depression, Sammy is allowing the political players in his government department (led by a smarmy Jack Hawkins) to walk all over him, to the sorrow and anger of Susan, Sammy's secretary and live-in girlfriend. Whether Sammy can sufficiently regain his confidence to save his job and his relationship with Susan is the crux of the story, which ends with a palm-sweatingly suspenseful sequence involving a German UXB on an English beach.

Powell and Pressburger brought virtually the entire crew from "The Red Shoes" over to "The Small Back Room," including production designer Hein Heckroth and composer Brian Easdale, and their artistry pays off. So does the artistry of Christopher Challis--a camera operator on "The Red Shoes," promoted to director of photography here--who provides B&W photography of uncommon clarity, depth and beauty. Above all, "The Small Back Room" is a wonderful showcase for the talents of David Farrar and Kathleen Byron, who were brilliant in "Black Narcissus" and equally fine here.
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Far from being an indicator of the decline of the creative genius of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Small Back Room harkens back to the pair's earlier black-and-white period and is an offbeat gem. David Farrar shines as Sammy Rice, a bitter yet sensitive man unsure if he has enough character to accept the things he must and the strength to change what he can in his life. Kathleen Byron (who appeared with Farrar in P&P's Black Narcissus in 1947) plays Susan, a shrewd, strong woman nevertheless deeply in love with a flawed, perhaps failure of a man. Their relationship, suprisingly and refreshingly adult in a period still wrapped in censorship restrictions, is the core of the film as Sammy battles his inner demons and those at his government job as one of the nameless, faceless experts in the "small back room." Full of wonderful character support (Jack Hawkins, Cyril Cusack and a hilarious cameo by Robert Moreley as a vapid government minister) and the famed Powell and Pressburger puckish humor and bursts of fantasy, this is a treat on all fronts. Beware the American released shorter version (UK release is 103 minutes).
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Sammy Rice (David Farrar) is a first-rate scientist and something of an expert in defusing bombs. The year is 1943 and the Germans have starting dropping a new kind of terror weapon on Britain. It's something small, evidently attractive to children, and explodes either when it's picked up or just touched. No one is sure because the three children and one adult who did touch the things were killed. Rice is asked to investigate by the Army. He says he has to have an unexploded device to work on; that he'll come as soon as the Army calls him. Rice, it happens, has also lost his foot and wears a metal one. He suffers pain from it and is well into a self-pitying meltdown fueled by alcohol. Susan (Kathleen Byron), the woman who loves him, understands what he's going through but sooner or later will have enough of his self-involvement. "Sue, you'd have such a good life without me," he tells her in a nightclub. "I take things from you with both hands. I always have. I always will."

Sammy Rice has to deal with his self-imposed isolation, his drinking and his unwillingness to face up to the fact that he has an artificial foot. Through all this, the group of scientists and managers Rice works with has come up with an anti-tank gun some feel is ready to sell to the government. He doesn't, but he's not willing to go against the consensus. Then, deep in an alcoholic haze, he gets the phone call. Two devices have been discovered. One is now being worked on by the Army captain who first asked him to help. It probably goes without saying that soon there is no Army captain and only one remaining device. Rice leaves for the English coast where the device is half buried in the sand.
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This is another Powell-Pressburger film I never tire of watching. Although done in 1949, the story is set around 1942-43, when England was on the losing side of the war. Its main character, Sammy Price, an alcoholic with a wooden leg, and an expert in weapons technology and in defusing bombs, deals with his own dragons. Susan, his girlfriend, helps him defuse his own internal "bombs" while at the same time dealing with the internal corrupt politics of weapon manufacturing and politics as usual. While showing Sammy's own internal conflicts, the film also shows the politics behind weapon manufacturing that is still relevant today. Although I love the entire film, the last thirty minutes are definitely the most suspenseful of all. I consider this movie as great as any other PP movies done during this decade. This Criterion edition also has some background commentary which is useful to movie lovers.
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