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on 30 September 2001
'The Small Back Room' is one of those films which I come back to with pleasure at least once a year. It captures the feel and mood of war-time London so effectively. It is based on a Nigel Balchin novel, first published in 1943, about the work of back room 'boffins' in war-time London. It tells the story of an embittered bomb disposal expert, Sammy Rice, who is part of an important research team, and his challenge with a booby-trapped bomb, set against the background of a turbulent love affair and a conflict of loyalties within a Government Department. The war time atmosphere, with its blackout, dismal lighting, servicemen in uniform and crowded bars, is carefully depicted in one of Michael Powell's last films to be shot in black and white. The gripping story reaches its memorable climax in a tense, nail biting conclusion, played out on the long shingle beach at Chesil Bank in Dorset. It is a film to savour in front of a good fire with a glass of malt whisky. Here's to you Sammy Rice.
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on 19 August 2004
For those thinking about buying this movie: do. It is a terrific adaptation of Nigel Balchin's superb wartime thriller of the same name. Once again Powell and Pressburger manage to provide magnificent screenplay and cinematography (even if the dvd has yet to be a "restored" version) whilst keeping the essence of the original story. The critism of the wartime system for weapon devlopment is superb and shows graphically how "the old boy net" and interdepartmental rivalry was waged - often to the detriment of the service personnel who had to use their "pet" weapons. The voice of the experienced officer calling for weapons that could be used effectively in the field by the average soldier in a meeting where external drilling noise and the mutterings of the various members is a classic moment.
David Farrah is superb and this film has the added bonus of Kathleen Byron, arguably the most attractive British actress of her generation. The casting of Jack Hawkins as a dynamic, cut throat and ghastly head of section is another piece of P&P magic.
In short, a not to be missed British Film with some genuinely black and thrilling moments performed by a great cast.
An excellent film.
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on 28 May 2004
'The Small Back Room' came towards the end of the partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. They created one of the most creative and thought provoking cycle of movies ever seen in British Cinema. Films such as 'A Matter Of Life And Death', 'A Canterbury Tale', 'Black Narcissus' and 'I Know Where I'm Going' examined the nature of relationships in a new, bold and extremely cinematic way.
They made imaginative use of studios, film stock and special effects.
'The Small Back Room' is by their standards quite a small scale picture. Once again they returned to performers from a previous film (in this case 'Black Narcissus') for their lead actors, David Farrer and Kathleen Byron.
Farrer is largely forgotten today but I consider this to be his finest performance. He plays an alcoholic bomb disposal expert, trying to stop drinking, save his relationship and defuse a bomb. Afflicted by the shakes and nightmares of giant bottles looming over him, he fights his depression and despair while trying to prevent his life exploding literally in front of his eyes.
As a film it has a lot in common with Billy Wilders 'The Lost Weekend'. Though in that film the lead character is trying to save his career and his relationship,the stakes in this one are much higher and the danger much more deadly.
Another classic emerging from the back catalogue,it is to be hoped that with its release on DVD a new audience will discover it and rescue it from its neglected status.
There are few extras but its selling at a very reasonable price and if you enjoy the work of Powell and Pressburger, Billy Wilder and the old fashioned stiff upper lipped second world war cinema world of 'Brief Encounter' then I think you'll find much to enjoy in 'The Small Back Room'.
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VINE VOICEon 23 April 2009
Another classic from Powell & Pressburger. Albeit a minor low-key one. Shot in moody black and white that gives the it an almost noirish feel the film explores the complex relationship between an embittered wartime bomb disposal expert,Farrar, who has already lost a leg and Byron, his girlfriend. She loves him unconditionally and is desperate for him to accept that and accept that they can still have a wonderful future together. But he is tortured by pain and bitter at his loss and he cannot bring himself to believe that she is sincere. Typical of Powell, their relationship is far more complex than was usual for this period of British film and the protaganists emotions are also more tortured than is usual.

However, what makes this film a classic is Farrar's attempts to understand a new type of german bomb and by the time he comes to try and defuse an unexploded one found on Chesel Beach the audience has so much emotion invested in his character that the tension is almost heart stopping. Powell films this brilliantly and just piles tension upon tension.

But if you think that just because the film's sixty years it'll all be passe and boring, you'd be very wrong. I watched this again recently and it was still so emotionally engaging that I was chewing my fingernails in the final scenes. Powell & Pressburger are up there with Hitchcock, a couple of the greatest film makers ever to work in this country. This is one of their best, although it lacks the scope or scale of Colonel Blimp or A Matter of Life and Death, buy it because you'll want to watch it again and again.
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on 19 October 2009
While definitely not a masterpiece on the scale of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH or A CANTERBURY TALE, this is an extraordinarily odd and involving film, with several classic Powell & Pressburger set pieces - a wonderful jazz club; an alcoholic's nightmare; a totally gratuitous scene of tests on an experimental gun actually filmed among the stones of Stonehenge. There is a strange lack of narrative drive, to the point where it is sometimes unclear why the film is being made, but that is true of all their best films - the interplay of characters and camera angles and brilliantly imagined sets offering perfectly good substitutes. Fine appearance from Jack Hawkins using his underexploited ability to be oily and nasty. The finale on Chesil Beach is a sort of summary of all Powell & Pressburger's concerns. Worth watching repeatedly.
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on 2 January 2012
This film is based on a novel of the same name by Nigel Balchin, published just after the second war. The plot of the novel involves the war, but it is not principally about the war. Its real subject is more introspective; about the main character's own self perception and failure to exploit his very obvious merits in a way that advances his career or his personal life. As a background to his own hard work and essential morality is prtrayed a series of business colleagues who are instantly recognisable to anyone who has worked in an organisation of any size. Best drawn perhaps is the charming but ruthless JB who claws his way to advancement through complete lack of concern for the actual work which he subverts. The fact that this is essential wartime work on which lives depend hightens awareness of the immorality of this approach, though the reader is left to find his own way to this conclusion, as with the essential heroism of the main character, Sammy, who fails to credit his own success in defusing a particularly difficult explosive device. Characters of a more noble stamp and awareness also flank Sammy - his girlfriend who understands his merits and also his deficiencies, and the Army captain who is killed on the first attempt to defuse the device. We understand from their respect that there is really something worthy in Sammy, despite his self pity and defeatism.
The firm is certainly weorth watching. The machinations or laxness of Sammy's various colleages is brought out very nicely in a few scenes. The relationship with his girlfriend is dealt with at greater length, and is very successful in the way their stormy and difficult relationship is brought out. The film portrays Sammy more directly as a man with alchohol problems, and does so with some success, while the book more intriguingly does not make it quite so utterly obvious. The real divergeance is the end of the film, which concludes in a formulaic way, with a definate conclusion. The book is much different in this respect: its termination is hardly so conclusive or so formulaic, in a way which I suspect is quite common in Balchin's work, as if one was simply allowed to view a few significant days in someones life which terminates without the normal concern of film-makers and some novelists with an utterly decisive and essentially happy ending.
Get the film and enjoy it by all means; but seek out the book even if you don't. It gives a real insight into working in an organisation, apart from anything else! It also may be just slightly disturbing!
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on 12 July 2009
As a child I moved from Swindon to Weymouth during WWII and Abbotsbury and Chesil Beach were places we travelled to by the train as shown in this film, so there are memories from long ago. This is another of the remarkable series made by Powell and Pressburger during and after WWII and the intensity of the scenes between Kathleen Byron and David Farrar are tangible. As often with P&P, they used the same stars again in another film which is also highly rated and well worth viewing - The Black Narcissus. A great movie-making team and this is a good example of their work
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on 10 June 2015
I found this film had potential to be great but in the end felt very let down. Too many strands running in sequence but getting them to make a whole failed. For a 1949 made film it looked rather dated compared to others of similar genre. The one plus point was the bevy of UK actors starting off their careers and having parts of various importance. If you have not seen it and like the genre its worth a watch otherwise it is a hard watch at times.
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The Small Back Room (AKA: Hour of Glory) is directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, with both adapting the screenplay from the Nigel Balchin novel. It stars David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Leslie Banks and Michael Gough. Music is by Brian Easdale and cinematography by Christopher Challis.

As the Germans drop explosive booby-traps across coastline England, Sammy Rice (Farrar) will be tasked with learning the secret to disarming the deadly devices. But first he must beat his private battle with alcohol, his form of self medication due to the loss of one of his feet.

The Archers produce what is in essence a tale of redemption, it's a superbly mounted drama dripping with realism and infused with atmospheric black and white photography. It somewhat divided critics back on release, but that tended to be customary where Powell was concerned, who himself wasn't sure about the validity of this particular piece. Yet it finds Pressburger and himself on sure footings, returning to more grounded human dramatics, their willingness to explore the murky fallibility of mankind is a thing of bold and effective cinematic beauty.

The by-play between Farrar and Byron is sexually charged, but heart achingly poignant as well. The pic is at its best when these pair share scenes, the back drops to their troubled courting veering from vibrant (hope) to dour (despair), the latter always staged at Sammy's gloomy flat and the scene of a brilliantly filmed expressionistic nightmare that he suffers. Elsewhere various military types either stand tall or sit behind desks speaking in correct literary tones, their collective problem being that the pesky Germans have come up with a vile bomb tactic that needs addressing ASAP.

Can Sammy come through for not only the war effort, but also for his sanity? Watch and see, it's great film making across the board. 8/10
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Having watched most of the famous Powell and Pressburger films over the past year, we decided to get the occasional lesser-known one. This film is a good quality print and no problems with the DVD. Whilst it definitely has the Powell and Pressburger feel, particular style, depth and excellent photography - it is also different from other Powell and Pressburger's in that the story is taken from a novel, and as such it is a book that has been made into a film. From the opening introduction (words on the screen) it sounds as if the story is authentic and based on personal experiences.

It is - technically - a war film. But with a difference - it is about the lives and pressures of those who worked behind the scenes in the war. A large part of the film is a personal story of one particular character, but it becomes more of a 'whole' as the film progresses. It can feel a little slow at the start, but this is common of P&P films and they get away with it because the slow start becomes more meaningful later in the film - a few things click - and you realise that without the slow start, it wouldn't have such a fantastic and tense last 20 minutes. I won't go into any further details on the plot and story, so as not to spoil it - but those last 20 minutes are worth watching the film for, even if you wonder where it is going at the beginning. Powerful and moving - especially when you realise and understand, some of the conflicts people faced during war-time - things that are not quite shown or expressed in films generally - there is no glory here - just - reality. And you end up warming to the characters, feeling for them - almost as if you knew them - and being amazed at what lives people have had - those people who are now elderly and seemingly behind the times. A quiet courage and bravery that no-one hears about. The film is also well ahead of it's time in terms of tackling a character with a disability - and in my view - this comes across better than any 'issues-based' modern play or film I have seen on the subject - it is an aside - but very relevant to the whole story.

It is almost a five star film - but not quite - but that doesn't mean it is not very very good.
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