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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Small Back Room

Only one year after the release of The Red Shoes in Technicolor, British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created the black-and-white wartime thriller The Small Back Room. While the movie sprang from a gritty novel about alcohol abuse and explosives research, it's halfway between character study and Hitchcockian suspense, and every frame is stuffed with witty cinematic flourishes. Powell and Pressburger's filmography is so deep that even their secondary works contain a wealth of invention and pure pleasure.


David Farrar plays a munitions researcher employed by one of the many quasi-official projects and institutes that got funding for various projects during World War II. (Powell makes the point with his usual deftness by having the camera pan down a building's long directory to the improvised sign at the bottom that points to Farrar's workplace.) By night, he battles the pain of his artificial leg and his alcohol addiction, with the help of the group's secretary, Kathleen Byron. By day, he battles the bureaucracy, venality, and incompetence of the British political and military machine—putting on shows for visiting ministers, resisting his superiors' selfish ambition, and investigating a frightening new booby trap that has started killing and maiming children on England's shores. As he races to learn the bomb's secrets, Farrar pits his blunt good sense against the trauma of combat and the self-medicating behaviors that fail to put it to rest.

The Small Back Room has sequences that could serve as a template for a British film noir, full of shadows, tilts, and half-obscured figures. But simultaneously, it demonstrates Powell and Pressburger's clear-eyed view of the world's pettiness and injustice. A dolly shot of a luncheon at a club matches each diner to the bowler hat or officer's cap resting above his table, until Farrar's battered trilby appears. As Farrar reads test results for a new artillery piece, jackhammers drown out his voice while the VIPs around the conference table feign interest. And in a striking dream sequence, Farrar is pinned to the walls of his flat by a looming giant whiskey bottle. The Small Back Room is minor Powell and Pressburger, but it could hardly be mistaken for anyone else's work.

Key features: An insightful commentary track by scholar Charles Barr, and charming audio of Powell dictating a few pages on the film for his autobiography.