The Small Back Room

Although finally entrenched in the pantheon of international filmmakers, British director Michael Powell remains an odd duck — a baroque visionary who was also a level-headed chronicler of domestic and professional life, albeit one with a not-so-hidden subversive streak. Working closely with his creative partner, the writer and producer Emeric Pressburger, Powell turned out lavish extravaganzas (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus), well-wrought melodramas (I Know Where I’m Going), pointed social farces, and a deeply disturbing, sexually charged thriller, Peeping Tom, that effectively ended his film career in 1960. Coming after the chromatic splash of the ballet fantasia The Red Shoes, The Small Back Room, a black-and-white WWII drama about a tormented bomb specialist, couldn’t be more of an about-face in style. Yet the inner anguish and obsessive nature of the typical Powell protagonist permeates this engaging, if not fully satisfying, 1949 production. Beautifully crafted and stocked with strong performances, Back Room nonetheless feels stilted for a wartime drama, its ponderous critique of British bureaucracy dragging the dramatic arc downward just when the pace needs picking up. And violating his own sober direction, Powell stages an expressionistic Lost Weekend-meets-Spellbound sequence demonstrating the temptation of the bottle that is not only jarring, but, worse, near campy in its outsized visual exuberance. Yet Powell’s insistence on revealing the neurotic tendencies simmering behind the stiff-upper-lip veneer of the characters makes for compelling viewing even when the narrative wanes. The chinks in the armor are what fascinated this ever-fascinating director, and it’s the psychological wear and tear just behind the stoicism that speaks to us today.