4 out of 5 stars

Coming directly after much more famous films like A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), The Small Back Room (also known as Hour of Glory in the US) stands as a testament to the writing, directing and producing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger at their height, while it remains comparatively unknown. Like many of their movies, it’s an idiosyncratic yet (mostly) successful assembly of relatively familiar elements woven together in novel ways—blending the comic and the deadly serious, social commentary with a deep emotional human story—but it’s also lower-budget smaller-scale, less flashy, and darker, even noirish than the movies it followed.

These factors likely contributed to the film’s underwhelming box office performance. Perhaps British audiences in 1949 simply weren’t receptive to a downbeat war story set so close to the conflict’s end. With rationing still in place, the post-war period was far from rosy, and public sentiment towards wartime struggles and heroism had shifted.

Powell had briefly contemplated making The Small Back Room without Pressburger. However, in the end, both men—known as “The Archers”—opted for joint billing as directors and writers, as was their custom. This was despite Powell being the principal director of their films. Pressburger shouldered more responsibility for the screenplay and, subsequently—once Powell had completed shooting—the editing process.

The film was based on a popular, critically well-regarded, though nowadays far from famous, novel of the same name by Nigel Balchin. Published in 1943 and set in that same year, it depicted a time when the tide of the war was turning in favour of the Allies, but victory was still not as obviously on the horizon as it would be a year or two later. Largely faithful to the novel’s broad outline, although some details including locations were changed, it focuses on a British scientist named Sammy Rice (David Farrar) who works in a small weapons research unit in London. However, it bifurcates into two quite distinct storylines that run throughout the film, before coming together at the end, when Sammy has a chance to redeem himself both in his work and his personal life.

One thread follows Sammy’s relationship with his girlfriend and colleague Susan (Kathleen Byron). The other concerns his involvement in investigating a new German weapon. Apparently a booby-trapped or time-delayed device, it’s been dropped on Britain and is killing civilians who pick it up—especially children—but how it works precisely, and therefore how to deal with it, is not yet clear as the film begins.

What’s clear is that Sammy has problems. His drinking is alluded to early on—as the landlord at the Lord Nelson pub (Sid James in one of his first roles) refuses to serve him whisky—and his strained life with Susan is quite different from the idyllic coupledom seen in many wartime films. She comes across as stronger than him, sometimes impatient too, and not afraid to show it. He’s lost a foot, for example, and had it replaced with a prosthetic, a major source of symbolism in The Small Back Room and frequently referred to. Susan is frustrated by his unwillingness to remove the prosthetic in front of her. (In the novel, the loss of his foot dates back to 1928, though the reason for it isn’t explained. In the film, where the background isn’t discussed explicitly, many viewers will doubtless assume it’s more recent and related to his wartime work with munitions. Possibly the implication was intentional; in any case, it doesn’t matter hugely.)

At the same time as Sammy’s personal situation unfolds, Powell and Pressburger’s film moves swiftly on with the story of the new German weapon. After an atmospheric opening street sequence in night-time London it reaches the foyer of an office building, where the camera pans downward through the smartly-lettered signs listing all the different military and government groups headquartered therein, many of them international. London, this shot reiterates, is the centre of the war effort.

Right at the very bottom, however, is a cruder handwritten sign for ‘Professor Mair’s Research Section’: a quintessentially British touch of wit from Powell and Pressburger, and also a celebration of Englishness. The film will make that point again several times—we may not always be slick and modern, but we get the job done just as well as anyone else, it’s saying. (Balchin was himself a senior scientist during the war and much of the scientific setting feels realistic.)

Professor Mair (Milton Rosmer) turns out not to be a major character, but he does appear in a key opening scene where Captain Stuart (Michael Gough) arrives at the Research Section to report on the new enemy weapon and to ask for some “expert guessing” as to its nature—again, English understatement and casualness encapsulated in a single phrase. Mair suggests that Sammy is the man for the job, and from here on The Small Back Room concentrates on him, culminating in its most famous sequence: his attempt to defuse one of the weapons on Chesil Beach in Dorset.

One of the finest bomb-disposal scenes ever filmed (and pleasingly devoid of glowing LED countdowns), it’s perfectly constructed and shot, cutting back and forth from Sammy himself to a group of soldiers watching from a safe distance, Sammy giving a running commentary on his progress into a field telephone, the soldiers separately discussing it among themselves. Close-ups of Sammy and the device heighten the tension, as does the harsh sound of the pebble beach. And in the background, the tranquil sea is surely an intentional reminder both of Britain’s survival during the war so far (as an island) and of its vulnerability (the bomb has “invaded” a beach on the south coast, just as the Nazis might one day). Its natural beauty may, like the open countryside of Snowdonia in Wales during an earlier sequence, also stand for an idealised Britain: this, The Small Back Room is saying, is what we fought for.

Those scenes are exceptions, though. Most of the film takes place in London, almost entirely within cluttered, crowded interiors like the Research Section offices, a Tube train, and a restaurant where the diners are seated almost cheek-by-jowl; only in the three sequences set outside London (in Dorset and Wales, and at Stonehenge) does the film open up to capture the “green and pleasant land”. Back in London, a more spacious, separate office procured by one ambitious executive at the Research Section is clearly an overweening self-indulgence, and Susan even comments that by erecting a partition he has stolen part of her window: the definition of selfishness in a film where natural light is mostly in such short supply. ‘Don’t Forget the Blackout’, reads a sign in the background of another scene, and you never can.

The war—or, rather, the war effort, since we see no actual fighting—goes on continuously all around, and is depicted in careful and sometimes wry detail. At a meeting of brass and boffins to discuss new weapons, for example, the discussion is vague and seems more about internecine rivalries than about actually making a decision; the sound of a drill and blackout preparations frequently interrupt; when Sammy is called upon to speak, he reads out an incomprehensible list of statistics which can mean nothing to the rest of the table. It’s a prime example of the way that Powell and Pressburger sometimes use scenes not to move the plot forward but simply to observe.

Despite depicting the frustrations and inanities of organisational life, as well as the personal flaws of individuals, The Small Back Room never descends into negativity. Just as Sammy, for all his drinking, bad temper, and self-pity, ultimately proves himself heroic, Powell and Pressburger believe that most, if not all, of their characters—and by extension, Britain itself—are fundamentally decent.

Farrar carries the film as Sammy: it’s all about his journey, though a few other characters, notably Byron’s Susan, are created with exceptional subtlety. Andrew Moor, in his book on Powell and Pressburger, beautifully described Farrar as “prosaic, earthy, baritone… a self-made, middle-class, pipe-smoking fellow”—so far from a swashbuckling hero—and that’s what makes him so perfect for the role. On the surface, he looks like a solid, reliable Englishman. Peel that back, and you find a man beset by self-doubt or even self-loathing; peel back further still, and you find a man with qualities he has forgotten he possessed. The changing moods of Farrar’s performance capture all this, not least the contrast between his behaviour in private with Susan and his public conduct. And Byron, who like Farrar worked several times with Powell and Pressburger, deserves much of the credit for making their characters’ relationship so believable.

Among the smaller roles, Jack Hawkins is both horrible and hilarious as the unctuous salesman brought into play as the public face of Professor Mair’s Research Section—the antithesis of the quiet, self-effacing professionalism that the film salutes. Cyril Cusack is outstanding as a young corporal with a stammer and an unhappy home life, not contributing much to the main narrative thrust but noteworthy as a parallel to Sammy, again illustrating that men can have problems and yet possess inner strength; the stiff upper lip isn’t everything.

James, whose later association with the bawdy Carry On films might lead you to forget he was also a talented straight actor, is utterly believable as the pub landlord. Robert Morley is amusing as a government minister and upper-class twit who visits the Research Section. However, a subplot about government reshuffles can get lost among the two more prominent storylines. Roddy Hughes is striking as a doctor in the Welsh section, even though he does play the comedic Welshman to a certain degree. His line about a severely wounded soldier, “extraordinary he’s lasted so long… extraordinary thing, the human body,” has clear relevance to Sammy’s situation and might help him to see the issue of his lost foot in a broader perspective.

The missing foot is a blatant metaphor for castration, for being unmanned, and would have been even more glaring in the 1940s when such pop-psychology symbolism was in vogue in film. Just in case it wasn’t clear, it’s underlined in some reassurance offered to Sammy by a Royal Engineers officer (Anthony Bushell) near the end of the film. He says others shouldn’t doubt “what you can do with your hands, your arms, or any other part of you” (my emphasis). An earlier, painful scene where a woman at a nightclub won’t take the hint that Sammy doesn’t want to dance—is even embarrassed to try—connects his foot, or more precisely his feelings about it, just as directly to his unhappiness.

Though Sammy isn’t (at least in the novel) one of the war-wounded, this aspect of The Small Back Room alludes to the problems faced by men—physically, psychologically, or emotionally injured—trying to reintegrate into traditional male roles after the war. Susan’s taking the lead in their relationship reflects the newfound importance that women gained.

But it can also be interpreted more broadly, as being about the postwar nation itself. Susan asks: “What’s so special about only having one foot? You can’t be a professional footballer, so what? You’ve got to make up your mind whether you’re going to spend the rest of your life being someone it’s just too bad about, or not.”

Sammy’s foot here represents not only the collapse of his confidence but also his inability to move forward in life. This is shown more literally in a shot during the Welsh sequence where he has difficulty crossing a stream with the rest of the men. The implications surely go beyond a single individual. Britain was damaged, is still suffering four years later, and doesn’t feel entirely good about itself. Sammy’s eventual regaining of confidence mirrors Britain’s too. Sammy can’t be a professional footballer, and Britain is losing the Empire, but that doesn’t mean they should just give up.

Not everything in The Small Back Room works perfectly. The expressionist-surrealist sequence where Sammy faces down giant clocks and a monstrous whisky bottle, all accompanied by “mysterious” music, is cleverly made in itself (and rather reminiscent of the nightmarish climax of Ealing’s 1945 film Dead of Night). However, it was disliked by critics at the time, and it’s so different in tone from the rest of the film that it seems out of place. Sammy’s renunciation of whisky in the lead-up to Chesil Beach is too abrupt, and the very end is a little too conventionally positive to be entirely plausible, given everything that has gone before. (Though the film’s last line—“Have a drink, Sammy,” spoken by Susan—is nicely ambiguous; it could signal his healing but could equally well foreshadow a fresh descent.)

Yet most scenes, even the smallest ones, are impeccably made and the finale on Chesil Beach is outstanding. The film’s unusual setting in the scientific world of World War II—a sort of halfway house between the military and the completely civilian—is consistently interesting, too, while the many fine performances give a realistic dimension to its rich thematic ideas. It may be less lavishly produced than its predecessors from Powell and Pressburger, but it certainly deserves to be better known than it is.

UK | 1949 | 108 MINUTES | 1.37:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH

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Blu-ray Special Features:

  • New restoration of the film. The dark but often subtle lighting of the London scenes is shown off to good effect but what stands out is the crispness of the Bala, Stonehenge and Chesil Beach exteriors. The crystal clarity of the last, particularly, adds to its intense drama. 
  • Restoring The Small Back Room. A fascinating short documentary featuring several members of the team responsible for the film’s restoration for this disc, and delving into the nitty-gritty of each stage in the process—for example, the challenges of combining frames from different sources.
  • A Tortured Hero: Kevin Macdonald on The Small Back Room. Kevin Macdonald is a fine director in his own right—responsible for terrific documentaries like One Day in September (1999) and Touching the Void (2003) as well as narrative features such as The Last King of Scotland (2006) and The Mauritanian (2021)—but he’s also the grandson of Emeric Pressburger. This excellent and substantial documentary, new for this disc, takes a broader look at Powell and Pressburger’s output before bringing a director’s point of view to details of The Small Back Room, with much insight on tiny details you might have missed. Like the other extra features, it’s probably best watched after the movie itself, to fully appreciate the subtleties of craft that Macdonald brings out.
  • Defusing the Archers: Ian Christie on The Small Back Room. Also new for this disc is this contribution by Ian Christie, author of Arrows of Desire: Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, again a wide-ranging and detailed exploration of the movie.
  • Audio commentary by Charles Barr. This is an exceptionally good, even superb, commentary from Charles Barr, a film scholar who is emeritus professor at the University of East Anglia and author of several books on British cinema history, with a particular focus on Hitchcock. Here he provides lots and lots of thoughtful observations on specific scenes as they unfold.
  • Interview with Christopher Challis. Unlike the other extras, this interview with The Small Back Room’s director of photography is more given over to personal recollections. Indeed, there’s lots of material on other films—and other filmmakers, including Billy Wilder—as well as some nice anecdotes of Challis’s experiences working with Powell.
  • The Making of an Englishman. Kevin Macdonald also hosts this final extra, which isn’t specifically about this movie—it’s a biographical tribute to his grandfather Emeric Pressburger, including much material on his early life as a Hungarian Jew at the beginning of the 20th-century. Martin Scorsese, a great Powell and Pressburger fan, is among the contributors (and also advised on the restoration).
  • English subtitles.
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Cast & Crew

directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
writers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Nigel Balchin).
starring: David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Leslie Banks, Michael Gough & Cyril Cusack.