31 May 2002 | jandesimpson
The Archers at their least flamboyant
As I am sometimes less than kind in my comments of the Archers, it was a pleasure to rediscover the other day "The Small Back Room" , a film I had not seen since its original release. Although this is generally regarded as one of their minor works, presumably because of its lack of flamboyance, it takes for once a very serious theme and treats it in a thoroughly mature way; that of the psychologically flawed individual and how he reacts when faced with possibly the greatest challenge in his professional career. Two of Sidney Lumet's finest films, "Equus" and "The Verdict" have the same subject. Sammy Rice, the boffin of "The Small Back Room", is struggling with alcoholism and the mental as well as the physical pain of coping with an artificial foot when he is called upon to discover the way to dismantle one of several booby-trap explosive devices dropped by the Germans over Britain in 1943. The casting of the two central characters is perfect. Although the part of Sammy calls for someone with a James Mason like authority, a much lesser actor, David Farrar, rises to the occasion particularly as he has the advantage of a large lumbering frame that conveys a certain physical awkwardness. As his sympathetic ladyfriend, Susan, Kathleen Byron drops her "Black Narcissus" melodramatics to give the performance of her lifetime as the woman who really knows how to handle Sammy when he is at his lowest. Add to this the fine camerawork of Christopther Challis, particularly liberal in its use of huge closeups that significantly heighten the psychological tension of the narrative, and you have a film well worthy of attention. In only two scenes does it falter. Unfortunately by conforming to the tiresome custom of British films of the period of sending up the Establishment, it presents Robert Morley as a rather silly senior minister. Although this would have probably fitted in the context of a comedy it is out of place in a film as darkly toned as this. Then there is the melodramatic lapse of resorting to Teutonic Expressionism when Sammy is fighting his alcoholism. In this nightmarish sequence he is physically dwarfed by a giant whisky bottle and an alarm clock. This is one of only two scenes to use background music. For the rest, untypically for this period, it does without. It makes for a stronger, more hard-edged experience.