The Small Back Room

Movie Information

In Brief: Little seen, The Small Back Room (1949) is very much a lesser work from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger — seeming even more so on the heels of the previous year's The Red Shoes. That doesn't mean that this film about the personal and professional troubles of an expert at bomb defusing (David Farrar) is without interest. Far from it. Like most of their films from the 1940s, it feels surprisingly modern — or at least years ahead of its time. There is a determinedly realistic feel to most of the film, which isn't to say that film overlooks the chance for an expressionistic alcoholic nightmare that makes such things in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945) look tepid. Interesting, but not one of the pair's great films.
Genre: War Suspense Drama
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Starring: David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Milton Rosmer, Michael Gough, Sidney James
Rated: NR

Though not without its merits, The Small Back Room (1949) is an odd film to take the position of being Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressurger’s final work from their glorious period of the 1940s. It’s small. It’s largely straightforward. It’s in black and white. The main thing—apart from one DT’s nightmare scene—that establishes it clearly as their work is that it plays and feels like a much more recent film than its year. Otherwise, it’s a well made WWII story about a bomb expert, Sammy Rice (David Farrar), who’s been called in to deal with a particularly nasty new kind of bomb. But that’s only part of the story. The film is as much or more about Sammy’s battles with alcoholism, the pain of an amputated foot, and his sense of being unworthy of his girlfriend (Kathleen Byron). There are nice touches, locations (including Stonehenge) and performances (Sidney James in a non-comedic role as a sympathetic pub owner is a standout) throughout, but after the triple whammy of A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948), it seems rather ordinary.

Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present The Small Back Room Friday, March 21, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library).  Info: 273-3332,

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.