Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Small Back Room (1949)

By Eric Jessen 8/5/09

The Small Back Room is a drunken dream and a sober nightmare. It's an awkward messy treasure, a strange excursion by dynamic Technicolor duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (of A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes fame) into dark cramped character study with alcoholism and the bomb, sometimes seeming to lack film noir sense but always interesting and captivating.
This movie is a tale of two distinct ironically juxtaposed halves. The first is a confusing frustrating jumbled hallucination full of inexplicable experimental Wellesian camera angles: into a mirror, under a table, threw the legs, behind the back. Our hero, Sammy (David Farrar), a weaponry scientist for the British military working with the “back room gang,” is at this point on the wagon, but his life is spinning out of control. He's an unstable wreck, crippled by a broken foot and self-pity, without “guts” or nerve, brooding over his life. He's pathetic. Afraid to be left alone and afraid to take chances, he relies on his lover and secretary Susan (Kathleen Byron) to keep him sober. In one scene he pleads, “Tell me I can have a drink.” In another, Sammy sits alone, waiting for Susan next to his lone bottle of whiskey, sweating, rubbing his face, tugging his collar as the tick tock of the clock gets louder and louder. His bottle of pain pills crashes to the floor. Suddenly he's hunched over under the peaked ceiling, the camera tilted accentuating deep shadows (reminding me of The Night of the Hunter), then surrounded by hundreds of tiny clocks, and a gigantic bottle of whiskey.
Sammy and Susan frequent a jazzy bar where Sammy often gives puzzling unexpected monologues, rambling and muttering odd babble. He tells Susan, “You've got it all worked out in the way women always have. They don't worry about anything except being alive or dead. Being dead to them means beginning to smell. Yes, you take it and make what you want of it.” Sammy sober sounds like an incoherent lush.
Susan finally gets fed up and leaves Sammy. Distressed and alone, Sammy goes on a drinking binge and trashes his apartment. The next morning he gets a call from the military telling him they need him to disarm a bomb. Sammy douses his face and gets a second wind. His buzz gives him a steady hand and confidence. He disarms the bomb, takes a promotion that gives him power and responsibility. Then Susan comes running back to him.
On the wagon Sammy and the movie is confused, boorish and fidgety (though still interesting) and off the wagon everything is peachy. Sammy is strong and in control. The movie runs smooth and steady. At the end Susan says, “Sammy, have a drink.”

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