Sammy Rice (David Farrar) is a first-rate scientist and something of an expert in defusing bombs. The year is 1943 and the Germans have starting dropping a new kind of terror weapon on Britain. It's something small, evidently attractive to children, and explodes either when it's picked up or just touched. No one is sure because the three children and one adult who did touch the things were killed. Rice is asked to investigate by the Army. He says he has to have an unexploded device to work on; that he'll come as soon as the Army calls him. Rice, it happens, has also lost his foot and wears a metal one. He suffers pain from it and is well into a self-pitying meltdown fueled by alcohol. Susan (Kathleen Byron), the woman who loves him, understands what he's going through but sooner or later will have enough of his self-involvement. "Sue, you'd have such a good life without me," he tells her in a nightclub. "I take things from you with both hands. I always have. I always will."
Sammy Rice has to deal with his self-imposed isolation, his drinking and his unwillingness to face up to the fact that he has an artificial foot. Through all this, the group of scientists and managers Rice works with has come up with an anti-tank gun some feel is ready to sell to the government. He doesn't, but he's not willing to go against the consensus. Then, deep in an alcoholic haze, he gets the phone call. Two devices have been discovered. One is now being worked on by the Army captain who first asked him to help. It probably goes without saying that soon there is no Army captain and only one remaining device. Rice leaves for the English coast where the device is half buried in the sand. What he does with it will determine not only his life, but will affect his whole outlook on himself, his worth and his willingness to accept responsibility.
Sound a little...well, too much? The Small Back Room features some very good acting, excellent dialogue, one of Michael Powell's quirky internal surrealistic scenes (as Rice fights his compulsion to have a drink) and an extremely well-handled and tense final twenty-five minutes as Rice works to defuse the bomb. On the whole, though, it seems to me that Powell and Pressburger, after such a run of great movies they created in the Forties, used The Small Back Room as a way to step back and let out a long breath. The movie is by no means a let-down, but the sulky self-pity of Sammy Rice leaves little room for us to get willingly involved with him. This is a problem because the movie, despite an exciting premise with the new-type of German bomb and the excitement of the last third of the film, is essentially a character study in Rice's self-pity. Sammy Rice starts out gloomy and unhappy, and he stays that way throughout the movie until he walks across the sand to see if he can defuse the bomb. Powell and Pressburger's subversive humor (a dolt of a governmental minister, a glad-handing arms manager) is amusing but we still wind up with Rice feeling sorry for himself.
I think it's fair to say that The Small Back Room marks the coming decline of Powell and Pressburger. The Tales of Hoffmann was still to be made, but with that exception every movie following The Small Back Room marked a decline in the kind of original, unusual cinematic storytelling that was the hallmark of The Archers. They had to deal with studio moneymen who gradually assumed control over the freedom that they had enjoyed with J. Arthur Rank and Alexander Korda. They, especially Powell, found it increasingly difficult to find subject matter that excited them. At one point, four years elapsed before they took on a new project. The Archers last movie turned out to be something Powell swore he'd never make after all those Quota Quickies in the Thirties, a programmer. They drifted apart, still friends, and went their own ways.
For those who admire Powell and Pressburger, The Small Back Room is well worth having. In addition to Farrar and Byron, both of whom were in Black Narcissus, there are a number of fine actors to enjoy, such as Jack Hawkins, Cyril Cusack, Sid James, Leslie Banks, Michael Gough, Robert Morley and Renee Asherson.
This Criterion release has an excellent DVD transfer. I only sampled the extras, which include a booklet essay, a commentary, a video interview with Christopher Challis who worked with Powell and Pressburger on several of their movies, and an audio excerpt of Powell's dictations for his autobiography. If you haven't bought the two volumes yet, I think you'll find A Life in Movies: An Autobiography and Million Dollar Movie great reading.
Thank goodness for DVD and for Criterion. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are no more, but we have their greatest films still with us. Says Challis, "It was a great team and I'm terribly sorry it packed up."