The Small Back Room (1949, Powell & Pressburger)

I watched this shortly before Trash Humpers, and judging from my notes, I’d already had more gin than I realized at the time. In place of the usual plot points and character names, I wrote down phrases that make me laugh, like “Bob’s your uncle” and when a young soldier is called “old man.” So feel free to blame the gin when I say this wasn’t one of my favorite Powell/Pressburger joints.

Weapons testing at Stonehenge:

I remember people mentioning this one when The Hurt Locker was out, both being about a damaged bomb defuser during wartime. Jeremy Renner was more psychologically damaged than this movie’s David Farrar (also of Gone to Earth), who is physically damaged, with a humiliating false foot (never seen by the audience, unlike Capt. John’s leg in Renoir’s The River). There’s a big solo bomb-defusal scene at the end with clamps and “reaching rods” – a low-key replacement for the awesome bomb suits in Hurt Locker, not that those suits helped much when bombs exploded. But most of the movie is a quiet, simmering backstage drama behind the war effort, with the munitions people trying to sell an idiotic government minister on some shoddy weaponry until Farrar finally exposes the whole thing – shadows of the Colonel Blimp theme of doing what’s right for the war effort versus what’s traditionally expected.

Our three heroes, conveniently in the same camera shot:

Of course there’s a girl – Kathleen Byron of Black Narcissus – a coworker who likes our bomb man, as well as a kind older professor (Milton Rosmer of The Lion Has Wings), a young specialist (Cyril Cusack of The Fighting Pimpernel) and an upright captain (Michael Gough, lumpy guy in The Horror of Dracula) who enlists the research unit to solve the mystery of booby-trapped cylinders the Germans have been dropping out of planes (he gets blown up at the end before Farrar takes the stage). My favorite character was a celebratory bottle of whiskey that hovers in forced perspective, always haunting the alcoholic Farrar with temptation.

A tough year to be nominated for best British film – if Kind Hearts and Coronets doesn’t beat you, The Third Man will.

N. James for Criterion:

The Small Back Room presents the relationship between Sammy and Susan in fairly realistic terms. In the novel the two live together; this could not be shown in British cinema of the period. Kathleen Byron claims the credit for the elegant solution of having the two live across the hall from each other. … The Small Back Room grapples with the sticky, intractable problems of a live-in relationship … Its depiction of companionship and care on the brink of catastrophe conceals a deeper undertow of romantic commitment to risk.

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