Sammy and Susan
The Small Back Room is a lesser known Powell and Pressburger film, perhaps because of its essential quietude, it's lack of the usual fireworks and fantasy. As a small scale black and white film which followed in the footsteps of the dazzling technicolor fantasias of A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, it's perhaps unsurprising that it has been occluded by their gaudy splendour. It's noticeable that commentators almost immediately refer to the hallucinatory scene of exaggerated expressionism which evokes the protagonist's battle with alcoholism and by extension despair, in which ranks of oversized clocks thunder out the passing seconds and a giant whisky bottle threatens to roll over him and crush him into the ground. But this is a scene which goes against the grain of the rest of the film, which relies much more on looks and glances, feelings unspoken but somehow known in order to portray the psychological effect of the war on those working at home. It is a film which won critical respect at the time, but attracted a meagre audience. It is ripe for rediscovery, for although it is very different in tone from their other works, it still ranks amongst Powell and Pressburger’s finest, which is praise indeed.
The film opens with a point of view shot through the windscreen of a car which is speeding through blackout London, until it is brought to a halt by a traffic light which commands it to ‘stop’ through the crossed shades which serve to reduce its luminosity. This serves as an opening metaphor for the way in which lives are interrupted and effectively put into suspension by the disruption of wartime. The titles locate the film as taking place in Spring 1943, when the war had become a long-established reality. The film focuses on the self-tormenting personality of Sammy Rice (played with aching stoicism by David Farrar), an expert in military ordinance, but as usual, Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell give rich life to even the most minor of characters. There is a pre-Carry On Sidney James (yet to the more familiarly matey Sid) as the sympathetic but no nonsense ‘not in my gaff’ publican ‘Knucksie’; Cyril Cusack giving a portrayal of touching hesitancy as Corporal Taylor, who is wracked by the knowledge that his marriage is breaking up during the long hours of his absence; the bluff and almost confrontational indifference of Colonel Strang, with his steely gaze (you can see that those eyes are blue even in black and white) and calculated distance failing to disguise his concern and sense of personal responsibility; and the extraordinarily moustached (in the military fashion) Colonel Holland, with his aptness to call a spade a spade.
We follow Captain Stuart, played by a very youthful Michael Gough, who was the occupant of the car whose viewpoint we shared, as he enters a plush marbled lobby which is filled with the muti-lingual and cultural babel of an international locus. It is a scene which displays Emeric Pressburger’s delight in mixing such disparate voices and accents, so richly demonstrated in A Matter of Life and Death. As we listen to this aural collage, the camera pans down a series of neatly lettered notices which provide a visually analogous set of signposts to the nationalities chattering in the background: Norwegian Merchant Seamens’ Enquiry Office; Czechoslovak Cultur Institut; American Red Cross; Free French Information Bureau; Polish Enlistment Office; International Red Cross London Office; Ministry of Supply S.E. Regional Offices. These all carry an air of importance global co-operation which is borne out by the smartly uniformed people we see engaged in meaningful conversation. At the bottom of this impressively variegated column of signage is taped a piece of scrap cardboard on which is a hastily penned ‘Professor Mair’s Research Section – first left’ with an accompanying arrow to point the way. This seems a rather more provisional and marginalized outfit, an impression not dispelled by Captain’s Stuart’s trek across an unlit courtyard to a building dwarfed by a large and looming block of flats of offices behind. This is the small back room of the title, where the beleaguered research team tries to carry out its work, with much unwanted intervention.
The story is essentially two-fold. Stuart is here to enlist the aid of the team in investigating the nature of a new secret weapon which the Germans may be using, but which is so shrouded in mystery that it might not even exist. This is a fairly straight war story, although it is complicated by Powell and Pressberger’s emphasis (taking their cue from Nigel Balchin’s novel, which drew on his own experiences) on the interdepartmental rivalries which are thrown up by the efforts to develop a new artillery gun. Sammy’s ostensible boss, ‘RB’ Waring, played with unctuous charm by Jack Warner, is more interested in his own self-promotion than in producing an efficient weapon. There is a very modern-sounding emphasis on figures, a word which makes Colonel Holland harrumph with contempt, and the ways in which they can be manipulated to give the required results. RB is there to sell an idea, and the tedious details of its actual applicability are considered unimportant, even though lives may be at stake as a result. There is a lovely scene which visually summarises the world in which Sammy has to operate, in which the camera pans along the rack above a long bench in a pub where lunch is being served. It is filled with the bowler hats of civil servants, broken only by one military cap until we come to the end of the row and Sammy’s trilby. This is the arena of faceless bureaucracy where the real games of power are played out and whose rules must to some extent be learned in order to make any progress.
The centre of the film is the love story between Sammy and Susan, superbly played by Kathleen Byron. In many ways, it is a reversal of the roles they played in Black Narcissus. In that film, Byron’s iconic depiction of the breakdown of Sister Ruth came after her rejection by Farrar’s indifferent Mr Dean. Here, it is Sammy who suffers the breakdown after Susan has apparently left him. But it is Susan upon whom he depends, and who is his strength throughout the film, and she never abandons him. Sammy’s ‘tin foot’, which we assume has been lost in a previous attempt to defuse a bomb, acts as a symbol of his feelings of impotence and powerlessness, and of his resultant bitterness. This is made evident in the nightclub scene, when he is left at the table as Susan goes off to dance with the partner of an old acquaintance of hers. Sammy gives her his blessing to thus enjoy herself, but we can sense that this is one more element to add to the mix of poisonous self-abnegation.
conflagration of the repressed
We never learn precisely the origins of this self-loathing, but it threatens the relationship he has with Susan. It is she who must prop him up without seeming to control him. They have a routine whereby she offers him a drink, and he refuses, the decision therefore appearing to be his. It is his need for her which triggers the expressionist nightmare scene mentioned above (oddly enough, not a dream sequence – rather a representation of inner torment) when she fails to turn up at a pre-arranged time. There is a palpable sense throughout the film of emotions being suppressed, put on hold. But they constantly threaten to flare up, something symbolically represented by the newspaper which Susan holds across the mouth of the fireplace to let it draw bursting into flames. Sid James is reluctant to let Sammy have a drink, too, partly out of personal concern, but also because he knows he is capable of breaking the place up, something he has evidently done before. The details of the relationship in this film, the sense of its strength, is conveyed in looks and glances. It is a film of close-ups, which convey both intimacy and the claustrophobia of lives dictated to by the exigencies of wartime duty which can suddenly call Sammy away to an unknown place like Bala, or insist upon Susan working through a lunch hour which they had intended to spend together. Ultimately, Susan is trying to guide Sammy towards regaining his sense of self-respect, something which also requires him to take responsibility for his work and do something to assert its importance and integrity. She wants him to become the self which she can see, and which she loves, but which is in danger of being destroyed by forces outside and within.
Finally, Sammy gets the chance to confront himself after he has reached the depths of self-destructive despair. He’s driven the sympathetic Knucksie to kick him out of the pub, finds that he has also forced Susan to leave him (she’s taken her picture out of the frame) and proceeds to destroy his own home, having hit the whisky bottle which has served as the symbol of his resistance to his alcoholism. It at this point that he receives the call informing him that one of the new bombs has been discovered. It is a crisis which offers him the chance of salvation.
The landscape in which the finale of the film takes place is a highly symbolic one. Sammy meets Colonel Strang outside St Catherine’s Chapel, the clifftop remains of Abbotsbury Abbey. This is the last of a line of sanctuaries in which Sammy has found refuge throughout the film. We have seen him observing the testing of a gun from within the stones of Stonehenge, and as he leaves this protected circle the screen has faded to show him walking to the entrance of the research rooms, which are another area of safe retreat. His rooms are another sanctuary, as is Knucksie’s pub. Now he must leave the sanctuary of St Catherine’s chapel and descend to the wide, desolate sweep of Chesil Beach where the bomb has landed. This is a landscape made for existential confrontations. It is empty and gray, the pebble bank divided by the salt lake behind and the flattened strips of sea and sky. The naked sound of wind, with no vegetation to temper it, provides the aural dimension to this desolation. Concrete blocks are scattered at regular intervals, giving the landscape the surrealistic flavour of a Paul Nash painting. From the slope of the beach where the bomb has been isolated in a mini-bunker, Sammy is completely alone. He has a speaker which connects him with the others, but it is one way. There will be no reply. The instability of the shingle surface is an externalisation of Sammy’s personality, and of the disruptions and daily uncertainties which he and Susan, and many others, have experienced and which has taken its gradual toll on their psyches. The defusing of the bomb is more than just his effort towards saving lives. Through purposeful action, the realisation of his own worth, he is defusing the rage which is always threatening to erupt from just beneath the surface of his fragile self-control. As he says, this is personal. The depiction of the romantic English landscape is beautifully done in itself (as it was in the Welsh scenes) as we would expect from Powell and Pressburger, who had ranged from the Hebridean Isles to the North Devon sands in previous films.
The film ends with Sammy having regained some measure of self-respect, taking on the responsibility of working directly for Colonel Holland, which will connect his work more directly with those who will be using it. The final scene finds him returning home, where he finds Susan waiting for him. Dawn is breaking outside (indicated by a slightly awkwardly operated mechanical bird which launches itself from a fence post) but she draws the curtains, shutting the outside world out. She turns on the light, and the chaos which he has wreaked on his own inner sanctum has all been repaired. The photo is back in its frame and even the whisky bottle whose contents he had decimated is back in its place. As Tim Lucas has pointed out in his review of the film, there is something very moving about the quiet restoration of order which this scene depicts. Kathleen Byron looks so joyful at the fact that Sammy has finally come back to her in spirit, that he has at last lived up to what she has known he could become. Her radiant face is the last thing we see in the film, which is an indication of her absolute centrality. It is her finest hour (and that includes her stunning depiction of the breakdown of Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus). In the second volume of his autobiography, Million Dollar Movie, Michael Powell wonders ‘why didn’t I make more picture with Kathleen Byron, if I thought so highly of her?’ I wonder too. Kathleen died in January of this year. Do watch this film as a tribute to her unique presence.