Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Small Back Room

My thanks to Beyond the Valley of the Cinephile for inviting all film-loving bloggers to contribute to a week-long Powell and Pressburger blog-a-thon, the only excuse I need to wax lyrical about one of my personal favourites.

The Small Back Room’ is an adaptation of a novel by Nigel Balchin, one of the most popular and well-respected British writers of his time. The title refers to the sub-basement office occupied by a research and development team – ‘boffins’, to use the vernacular. Professor Mair (Milton Rosmer) is a man of science, lending his acumen to projects designed to assist the war effort and effect a swifter victory for the Allies. His team includes Sammy Rice (David Farrar), the brains of the outfit but a man with his personal demons, and the walking case of nerves Corporal Taylor (Cyril Cusack), whose cuckolding by his wife is an open secret in the department.

Not that Sammy fares much better. Limping from a wound which has resulted in a tin foot, fighting the pain with beer and prescription drugs that do nothing for him, Sammy valiantly tries to stay off the Scotch – the only thing guaranteed to dull the pain – for the sake of his on-off girlfriend Susan (Kathleen Byron). Matters are complicated in that Susan is secretary to Sammy’s oleaginous boss R.B. Waring (Jack Hawkins). Waring is more salesman than scientist, schmoozing with government contacts – a scene involving a minister’s visit (the politico, billed as “A Guest” in the credits, is immediately recognisable as Robert Morley) is one of the best bits of political satire that side of ‘Yes, Minister’ – and not really caring about the poor bastard in the firing line who has to use the product.

The narrative centres around several (personal and professional) challenges to Sammy’s equilibrium. Firstly, a new type of unexploded bomb has been discovered. Designed to resemble a harmless thermos flask, but producing deadly results if handled, this is “Jerry’s” latest booby-trap. As the film opens, Sammy is approached by idealistic Captain Stuart (Michael Gough) to give a professional opinion on the device with only the barest amount of information to go on. The best he can offer is to be called to the scene the next time one is discovered. Secondly, he is summoned to give evidence at committee on a new, still-being-tested piece of ordnance, the Reeves gun, which Sammy can see is badly flawed, but which Waring wants to push through to government contract stage.

Sammy’s clash with Waring over the Reeves gun leads to ministerial resignation and potentially negative changes within the research department. It also fuels a stand-up row between him and Sue. She walks out on him. He goes back on the whisky, big time. Trashing his apartment in the throes of a drunken rage, Sammy gets a call – Stuart has tried to defuse one of the new UXBs and died in the attempt. Another device has been found, buried in the treacherously unstable pebbles of Chesil Sand. Frustrated, angry and hungover, an emotionally unstable Sammy presents himself at the scene and begins to defuse the bomb …

‘The Small Back Room’ operates pithily and effectively on three levels: knife-in-the-back political satire, nail-chewing suspense thriller, and character study of an alcoholic. Make no mistake, ‘The Small Back Room’ is up there with ‘The Lost Weekend’ and ‘Withnail and I’ as one of the greatest drinking movies ever made. Take the scene where Sammy, terrified of being alone, agrees to meet Sue at his apartment only for her to be kept late at work. He sits at a bare table and regards two objects: an (as yet) unopened bottle of whisky and a clock. He stares the clock out through the passage of an hour. He begins to hallucinate. The endlessly ticking clock, every tick hideously and surreally amplified, insinuates itself into the pattern of the wallpaper. The whisky bottle swells so that it occupies the entire room, bearing down on Sammy, forcing him up against the wall. Remember the magnificently off-the-wall cold turkey sequence in ‘Trainspotting’? … ‘The Small Back Room’ did it first.

Then there’s Sammy going off the wagon: argument with Sue; exeunt girlfriend; uncertain future at work. He heads for his local and implores barman Knucksie (a pre-‘Carry On’ Sid [billed as Sidney] James) to serve him whisky. Knucksie, well aware of Sammy’s inability to handle the hard stuff, refuses. Sammy starts wrecking the joint. “Knucksie,” he slurs, “has anyone ever given you a thick ear?” The barman stares him down: “Not without paying cash for it.”

I don’t think anyone’s given a more convincing performance of a drunkard violently (and pitifully) losing it as Farrar does here.

All of this makes the climactic scene that much more tense. Actually, ‘tense’ doesn’t do it justice. ‘The Small Back Room’ delivers its payoff in a twelve-minute scene that is sweatily, agonisingly, sphincter-tighteningly unbearable. Sammy treads slowly out towards the UXB, the pebbles of Chesil Bank cascading beneath his feet with every step. He nearly blows himself to shit just latching up supports around the device. Then he takes a couple of monkey wrenches to the cylinder to try to open it … If you’re not watching through your fingers whilst desperately needing to pee by this point, then congratulations: you officially have nerves of steel.

Bomb disposal scenes are a staple of cinema. Bond movies ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Octopussy’ … child’s play. TV spin-off ‘Sweeney 2’ … amateur hour. ‘The Small Back Room’, as I may have mentioned before, did it first and did it best. Its only shortcoming is that Powell and Pressburger directed it. In the all-time P&P greatest movies list, arguably half a dozen features rank above ‘The Small Back Room’ … but that shouldn’t detract from one simple fact: it’s the best film of its kind bar none.

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