Tuesday, May 17, 2011

#441: The Small Back Room

(Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1949)

I'm not really sure why Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger chose to follow up their masterpiece The Red Shoes with this small character study. Maybe they were eager to do something a little less ambitious - which is not to say this movie isn't attempting to reach within its genre. Powell and Pressburger were certainly never able to be pigeonholed into a style of film, and unlike a great American contemporary like Howard Hawks they seemed to float between genres less because of studio contract options and more because they genuinely wanted to stretch and the relative freedom of the British system allowed them to do so.

The Small Back Room is an appropriate companion piece to the recent Oscar winner The Hurt Locker. Both films delve into the psyche of bomb technicians specifically and soldiers in general, though the more recent film is making a broader statement where The Small Back Room is very much focused on one man, almost to a degree that recalls a film like The Lost Weekend, where another protagonist struggled with alcoholism, only Wilder's film was vastly more heavy handed and overacted (as Wilder himself would later admit). Centered around a man who has lost a foot and struggles with non-stop pain - previously alleviated through whiskey, which led to alcoholism. Now he trudges along in a bureaucratic wasteland where incompetence reigns and his cynicism has kicked in. Running through the film as a side plot, a British officer comes to him to get his opinion on bombs that have been dropping in the British countryside, apparently sent by Nazi planes to terrorize the British.

This latter plot is far more interesting than the main plot, and it's a shame it didn't take up more of the film. The rest of the more personal elements and politics were almost entirely dull - it felt like a well-written novel that simply didn't translate to the screen (this was a novel, by the way). I have a lot of respect for Powell and Pressburger, and the bigger moments in the film - most notably the awesome dream sequence and the bomb defusing scene - did capture my attention. But the rest of the movie was overly melodramatic and uninteresting.

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