The Small Back Room marked a transitionary period for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, having just ended their working relationship with J. Arthur Rank, which Powell in his memoir would describe as “the most glorious partnership in the history of British films”. Powell and Pressburger returned to Alexander Korda and the more modest means afforded to them at London films. The Small Back Room (TSBR) is often understood as the beginning of the end of Powell and Pressburger’s partnership, coming immediately after their creative peak with The Red Shoes (1948), it signaled a dramatic change in temperature for them, switching from a large scale production and vibrant technicolor to monochrome and London Films much smaller budget. On release it ultimately proved to be very unpopular with post-war British audiences but although it may speak of war, it is in the landscape of post-war Britain that it can best be understood.
Its source material is a novel of the same name, penned by Nigel Balchin. Balchin was an intriguing figure in his own right, successful novelist and screenwriter, he also had a career as an industrial psychologist and bizarrely is credited with creating Black Magic choclolates and the bubbles in Aeros.
Themes of inventors or ‘boffins’, along with psychoanalysis, war trauma and alcoholism, (which he himself suffered from) are prevalent within his works. Notably his novel and screenplay of Mine own Executioner features a psychologist treating traumatized military veterans, whilst also struggling with his own psychological problems.
Set during the blackouts in London, TSBR is a tale of an alcoholic bomb disposal expert. Sammy Rice (David Farrar) is called upon by the British army to help find a way of disarming a new type of time delayed bomb that German planes are dropping all over England. Sammy who has lost a leg (how, we never know) suffers from continual pain from his artificial ‘tin’ leg. Heavy drinking, prompting violent rages, is his only release from the constant pain he is troubled by.
His lover, Susan, is played by Kathleen Byron, the mad nun of Black Narcissus fame in which Farrar again was also the focus of her devotion. Byron is in much more demure role here, this time letting Farrar teeter at the abyss. All thought the book has them cohabiting, film censorship dictated that the unmarried lovers live across the hall from one another in the same dingy tenement block. They listlessly wile away their time in jazz clubs and dingy boozers, Susan dotingly keeping Sammy company on his binges. The couple work together in a mysterious government department, Susan as secretary to Sammy’s boss from whom they keep their relationship a secret, they are both employed in. Sammy is one of the titular ‘Back Room Boys’ scientists so called for the secretive nature of their work and the small cramped spaces it which much of it was carried out.
The film is particularly striking for its predominant use of extremely cramped interior sets, all filmed in an almost oppressive low-key Black and white lighting. This noirish visual style succeeds in creating a palpable atmosphere of a seedy smog bound London during the Blitz. Often the frame is pitched in to darkness and we loose all spatial sense.
Often the actors faces are dimly lit smudges within a blackened frame. Across the set-design a repeating visual motif is apparent. A distinct crisscross pattern is incorporated into the sets and lighting throughout, its stark geometrical sequence further abstracts and fractures already gloomy indefinable spaces. This expressionistic pattern suggesting in its overwhelming ubiquity Sammy caught in a net cast across his life. Its visual source is in in the taped up windows of the public buildings, done to protect against bomb damage but the pattern spreads itself out to cover almost every surface, in the wallpaper of his cramped flat, the furniture in the jazz club, blacked out traffic lights and even scored across the photo on his official ID.
The architecture and topography in the film is equally shattered and difficult to decipher, constructed from a labyrinth of dingy rooms containing within them even smaller dingier rooms. At one point Sammy turns up for work to discover an entire interior wall has been shifted by his boss to expand his own office space, with Susan now sitting in an increasingly narrow office next door, her window and by consequence a third of her natural light eaten up by the approaching wall.
The carefully constructed sets are also there to bring Sammy into direct eye-line with other characters legs and feet, whose healthy and natural movements seem to taunt his own predicament. In the jazz club the camera pans horizontally across from a close-up on dancing feet, to the couple sadly watching from a sunken booth by the dance floor. Elsewhere the laboratory Sammy works in is located in a basement and a constant stream of passing feet can be seen marching over the glass tiles in the ceiling above Sammy’s head.
As the urban environment literally closes in on them the films visual style already heavily informed by German Expressionism advances further into this territory forgoing any sense of realism altogether for a delirious, sequence as we watch Sammy’s desperate wait for Susan to get home, desperately fighting the desire to drink the clock becomes a menacing, taunting object that multiplies into hundreds of ticking clocks, and a bottle of whiskey grows to monstrous proportions as Sammy is engulfed by his nightmarish addiction.
After this sequence a small but peculiar thing happens. Susan arrives home and Sammy races out into the London night furious with her for letting him be alone with himself. Susan follows Sammy out into the night and as they stand on the Thames Embankment, Sammy remonstrates with her; “I thought we agreed never to work late on Wednesdays?!” She responds that its not Wednesday but Tuesday, he remains confused, a colleague had earlier told him it was Wednesday. So they ask a passing stranger what day it is, the stranger responds with a further possibility; “Monday”.
So beyond Sammys personal impairment of time we can observe more widely a London losing its grip on any predictive, cyclical notion of time, smothered by an endless nightime of bombing raids and blackouts.
In Damian Suttons 2005 Screen article Rediagnosing A Matter of Life and Death he argues against a Freudian hypothesis of trauma, which suggests there is a gap or delay between an event and the event becoming a memory that then triggers the trauma. Instead he posits a Bergsonian understanding of trauma, as quote “neither transformed into a story nor ‘placed in time’.” It is Sutton’s Bergsonian approach to another Powell and Pressburger film on trauma that can help us understand TSBR better.
The story behind Sammy’s trauma, his loss of a leg is never fully explained to the spectator, it just is. This narrative choice fails to contain his trauma to a past event, and like the pain of the false leg determines the incident as persistent . If Sammy is likened to the new time delayed German bombs that are being dropped on Britain it is in the inability to position the bomb either in the past when it impacted or in the future when they will explode. Sammy exists within this space.
To quote Sutton on Begson again ”Useless memories are displaced as perception moves forward. Trauma interrupts this process, preventing memories from embodying the past.”
The end of the film opens up to both an abundance of natural light and a wide sense of space, as an extremely hungover Sammy finally comes face to face with one of these bombs on location at Chesil Beach. Sammy is positioned lying down on the beach, studying the bomb in front of him, his metal leg positioned at the same angle to it with both dug somewhat into the pebbles. His attempt to pacify the bomb is clearly an allegory of his attempt to heal himself of his own war trauma. As he painstakingly opens up the bomb he relays every action he makes by way of a microphone to a nearby bunker where a stenographer records his words. An analogy between the process at hand, and the “talking cure” of psychoanalysis can be found here. Through his dialogue, we hear him he slowly find more and more complexities and hidden chambers within the mechanisms of the unexploded bomb as he explores it in detail.
In his article The Trauma Film and British Romantic Cinema, film theorist John Orr situates The Small Back Room as a prelude to a Peeping Tom in its “Powellian Trauma”. Orr observes Michael Powell to have made a trilogy of films dealing with notions of trauma: A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Small Back Room (1949) and Peeping Tom (1960). Orr argues ultimately, that the key differences between the films are that A Matter of Life and Death and TSBR are depictions of Trauma exorcised, whereas Peeping Tom exerts a vision of Traumas destructive triumph.
I’d like to argue for a slightly different, reading of The Small Back Room where we can instead positioned its treatment of trauma as some where between the two camps and for this reason the more veracious of the three as a narrative of trauma. Sammy has symbolically reconnected with the world through his victory over the bomb on Chesil Beach but his trauma remains. As the film closes he embraces Susan in his flat with a new optimism, Birds and trees can even be observed outside the window for a first time in the film, strong visual motifs of renewal. But of course the crisscrossed pattern of the flats wallpaper remains and it still surrounds him. In their final embrace we find this is far from ‘closure’, Sammys eyes look over Susan’s shoulder and are again transfixed by the bottle of booze sitting behind her on a table. The woozy leitmotif associated with the bottle returns to the soundtrack as his desire for drink returns and Susan knowingly murmurs in his ear “Have a drink Sammy”. And we fade to black, so it is not a fade out where we believe that Sammy has either entirely defeated his trauma such as we see in the bedside embrace of A Matter of Life and Death, but nor is Sammy consumed by his trauma and its detectable surface of his alcoholism. Sammy instead finds the strength to continue to live with and against his trauma, it does not reach an apex but remains a constant ebb and flow, the nightmare continues but is sufferable. The Small Back Room has something in common with another unpopular post-war British film dealing with post-war trauma in an even more pessimistic vein; Ealing studios portmanteau Dead of Night (1945) in which a man finds himself in a series of eternally repeating nightmares. Each time he awakes from his nightmare just at the point of his own death, only to find himself enclosed in a further repetition of the same terrifying dream.
Michael Powell’s A Life in Movies: http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/A_Life_in_Movies.html?id=dUB8QgAACAAJ&redir_esc=y
Damian Sutton’s article Re-diagnosing of A Matter of Life and Death: http://screen.oxfordjournals.org/content/46/1/51.full.pdf
John Orr’s article The Trauma Film and British Romantic Cinema 1940-1960: http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/feature-articles/trauma-film-british-romantic-cinema/