Criterion’s fealty to filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, collectively known as the Archers, seems to know no bounds, as the release of minor postwar effort “The Small Back Room” wrapped in a deluxe edition suggests.
Pic itself — from 1949 but looking newly minted in Criterion’s typically luminous transfer — has limited appeal, to Anglophiles mostly and Archers obsessives, of which there are many. For those of a mind, though, it provides a detailed look into some of the least glamorous aspects of the British war effort during WWII, with focus — in this case quite detailed thanks to Christopher Challis’ pinpoint b&w lensing — on half-military, half-civilian bureaucracy dedicated to studying arms and explosives.
Human element arrives via the maturely limned romance between David Farrar’s Sammy Rice, a brilliant but crippled scientist with a serious drinking problem, and Kathleen Byron’s Susan, the too-accepting ministry functionary who loves him.
But their earnest mutual sacrifices are appealingly leavened by captivating supporting perfs from such U.K. cinema stalwarts as Jack Hawkins (delightfully unctuous as Susan’s amoral boss), Cyril Cusack (as a stuttering, cuckolded boffin) and Robert Morley (in an uncredited cameo as a buffoonish government minister).
Pic’s best moments are two brilliantly shot scenes: the first, Sammy’s climactic battle with the bottle; the second, his attempt to diffuse a bomb on a pebbled — and thus unstable — beach. The earlier scene, full of Expressionistic touches, owes much to two pics produced four years earlier: Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” and Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend,” yet it holds its own as an imaginative depiction of a man wrestling inner demons.
Highlights here are the extras, including an erudite commentary by scholar Charles Barr and several extended audio excerpts from the tapes Powell used to compile his second autobiography, “Million Dollar Movie.” But the clincher is a new 20-minute video interview with eminent lenser Challis, now nearly 90 years old. His reminiscences — mostly about Powell, Pressburger and this film, but touching on Wilder and others — provide illuminating details regarding a fascinating period in British, and indeed world, cinema.
Running time: 107 min.