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82 of 82 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Boffins in war-time London
'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...
Published on 30 Sep 2001 by geoff@ealingstudio.demon.co.uk

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7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Blow-Up Without The Blow-Up
This story of a WW2 scientist, engaged on such problems as how to defuse a new type of boobytrapped German bomb, was based on a novel which I recall having to read in English literature classes circa 1971. The film, in black and white, is reasonably interesting so long as one accepts the premise that the WW2 British bureaucracy would want to try to defuse such devices...
Published on 9 Jun 2008 by Ian Millard


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82 of 82 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Boffins in war-time London, 30 Sep 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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49 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Minor Classic, 19 Aug 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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39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Neglected Classic From Powell and Pressburger, 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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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic, 23 April 2009
By 
Johnnybluetime - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Small Back Room [DVD] [1949] (DVD)
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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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, 19 Oct 2009
This review is from: The Small Back Room [DVD] [1949] (DVD)
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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good, but not as good as the book, 2 Jan 2012
This review is from: The Small Back Room [DVD] [1949] (DVD)
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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Powell and Pressburger film - unusual story and probably authentic historically, 19 Jan 2011
By 
Fairy Godmother (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Small Back Room [DVD] [1949] (DVD)
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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Archers in decline, but still a film worth watching, 16 April 2007
By 
C. O. DeRiemer (San Antonio, Texas, USA) - See all my reviews
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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, uninvolving? 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 exited 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. There no extras; the DVD transfer is more than acceptable.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intense, 16 May 2011
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This review is from: The Small Back Room [DVD] [1949] (DVD)
Suprisingly fresh in it's attitude to sexuality the film portrays one man's road to redemption from alcohol and self pity. The bomb disposal scene on the beach is gripping. P and P films always had a stronger than usual visual component, compared to their contemporaries, and this film is no exception. Recommended.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brings back memories, 12 July 2009
By 
F. J. Dukes "Broadmayne" (Hampshire, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Small Back Room [DVD] [1949] (DVD)
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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The Small Back Room [DVD] [1949]
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