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The Small Back Room Review: Feverish Restoration

Two characters look at each other on a train in a black and white still from the Studiocanal restoration of the film The Small Back Room

Marking the film’s 75th anniversary, StudioCanal’s 4k restoration of The Small Back Room is ravishing, timely and the tension in its finale is feverish.

Directors: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Genre: Drama, Romance, Thriller
Run Time: 106′
Restoration Release (UK): May 28, 2024 at BFI Southbank, June 3 on Blu-Ray, DVD & Digital
Where to watch the Film in the US: on the Criterion Channel

The directors of WW2-set drama The Small Back Room, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, are predominantly known for their famous works The Red Shoes (1948), which earned the 9th spot on the British Film Institute’s ‘Greatest British Films’ list in 1999, and A Matter of Life and Death (1946), a film which placed 20th on the same BFI list. There was an expectation, when Powell and Pressburger directed The Small Back Room, that it would continue the vivid surrealism and lavish craft that they were known for.

But the film subverted those expectations by being a more reserved British black and white noir, a movie that tackled the bureaucracy of war and the fallibility of forced masculinity and did so with a more everyman approach. To mark its 75th anniversary, StudioCanal have released a restored version of the film, courtesy of The Film Foundation and BFI National Archive’s meticulous work in restoring it, funded by StudioCanal themselves.

Based on Nigel Balchin’s novel of the same name, The Small Back Room covers the story of Sammy Rice (David Farrar), a British military scientist whose expertise is in bomb disposal, and his relationship with Susan (Kathleen Byron), his neighbour, colleague and love interest. Due to internal work politics of their back room office, notably kept from receiving recognition for their success stories, their relationship must be kept a secret. This runs parallel to Sammy’s own issues, where his depression and pain after losing his leg in the war must remain hidden to all but Susan, while continuing to hide his dependence on alcohol from his overseers.

This dependence is highlighted in extraordinary fashion, with Powell and Pressburger utilising techniques like forced perspective and matte paintings to surreally show how Sammy’s attempted sobriety affects his mental state. Surrealist imagery that invokes the works of Salvador Dalí depicts his fragility until Susan returns from their work, shattering the fever dream of addiction he is trapped in.

The Small Back Room: Trailer (Classic Movie Madness)

Farrar and Byron were superb together in previous Powell and Pressburger movie Black Narcissus, which is no doubt a contributing factor to the relationship between Sammy and Susan being electric. While Susan has little to do but be a saintly angel in the narrative that focuses so heavily on Sammy and his ailments, Byron gets her due moment in a scene that has her erupt from the back ranks. But within discussion surrounding the male gaze, that her frustration is solely aimed at fixing Sammy means she is limited in how effective this portrayal can be. The newly restored film opens with a forewarning surrounding harmful depictions so this is to be expected from a film that is now 75 years old.

The plot itself follows two opposing lines of thought. The first is within Sammy’s interactions with bureaucrats who are trying to push through a military gun that is aesthetically what they desire but Sammy’s research proves it is unsuitable for warfare. There’s an idea proposed very briefly that Sammy himself is against warfare, a thought that potentially grew from the loss of his limb, but it’s detracted almost immediately. The second plot line is where Sammy is called upon to figure out how the Germans are dropping specific kinds of booby-trapped bombs, the kind that only detonate when interacted with by a human counterpart, or as the film states, the children that pick them up. 

On Sammy’s research around this, he meets a wounded soldier who has had this bomb detonate, and while recalling his story through painful mumbles, his commanding officer states that “he didn’t want to be a sissy” for worrying about the item. This sets off a chain reaction within Sammy that leads the man to more self-destructive ideals, and as the sun-drenched, tension-filled finale occurs on Chesil Bank, his stoic masculinity is challenged and the subtle inferences to PTSD (at the time a phrase not in common vernacular) become more apparent. We might not find out how he lost his leg, but his bravery shows a man that hasn’t solely sat in back rooms the entire war.

A man sits at a bar with an empty glass in his hands  in a black and white still from the Studiocanal restoration of the film The Small Back Room
The Small Back Room (Studiocanal)

While not as revered within Powell and Pressburger’s oeuvre, this is the kind of old-school drama whose technique and craft put to shame some modern filmmaking. Its monochrome black and white images, especially within Sammy’s despair-driven nightmares, are gorgeously crisp from the splendid restoration. The two plot lines, along with the time spent on Susan, don’t completely gel but each have their independent strengths. The political reverence at the time of bringing attention to the work of the people in the back rooms of war is notably intelligent and should be regarded as morally correct. But it is that The Small Back Room challenges the flaws of bureaucracy in war that leads the film to still feeling resoundingly timely 75 years later. 

Studiocanal’s new 4K restoration of Powell and Pressburger’s The Small Back Room, which marks the film’s 75th anniversary, premiered at the BFI Southbank on 28 May, 2024 and will be released for the first time on Blu-ray, and also on DVD and Digital on 3 June. In the US, the non-restored version of the film is now available to watch on The Criterion Channel.

Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger Review – Loud And Clear Reviews
The outstanding Made in England sees Martin Scorsese look at Powell and Pressburger and his personal connection to the legendary pair.
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