Criterion Sunday 441: The Small Back Room (aka Hour of Glory, 1949)

Powell and Pressburger made quite a few films, but few of them have the profile of their big Technicolor productions like The Red Shoes or The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, among many others, and this black-and-white World War II-set drama about a bomb disposal expert (of sorts) is one of their lesser-remembered productions. It stars David Farrar, best known from his turn in another of their better-known films from a few years below, Black Narcissus. He’s playing Sammy Rice, an embittered alcoholic scientist working away in a secret department during the war, who has some good ideas he feels are being smothered by bureaucracy and mismanagement (the government minister is a particular dimwit, as ministers always seem to be), and his relationship with Kathleen Byron’s Susan isn’t exactly going swimmingly either. That’s the set-up for the emotional dramatic arcs, while in the background there’s a MacGuffin involving a new German bomb that’s been killing kids, but the film is mostly focused on those interpersonal dynamics, along with his grumpiness at work. It’s an interesting angle on the war, not as a stage for heroics, but as a grim series of ordeals that everyone struggles through as best they can, not always handling things very well. It also has an excellent noirish, even expressionist, sense of dim lighting, as high contrast shadows are thrown over many scenes. Maybe not the greatest of the Powell and Pressburger collabs, but certainly an intriguing one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Nigel Balchin); Cinematographer Christopher Challis; Starring David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough, Cyril Cusack; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 25 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 357: The Fallen Idol (1948)

I mean, yes, the child in this film is annoying, but he’s a child, and it’s his point-of-view, however flawed and naive, that the film is built around. He is Philippe (Bobby Henrey), the son of an ambassador in London’s posh but boring Belgravia (there’s even a scene in the Star Tavern, making me already miss the place) whose parents are off away, so he’s in the care of the butler Baines (Ralph Richardson) and Mrs Baines (Sonia Dresdel), the latter of whom is best understood as a woman wronged, though she is a little bit one note. Which is to say that in his childish enthusiasm for the people around him, he happens onto some secrets and lies, and the rest of the film is about the way in which he tries to keep everything together, or at least the way that he thinks he does, while focusing on creating untruths that help precisely nobody in particular. It’s a film, then, about the corrupting influence of the adult world, with its tawdry affairs and its banal gossip alongside its grandiloquent storytelling (cue a bit of racist imperialism as Baines recounts his imagined stories of Africa). It all looks great, a bit noirish with the black-and-white and the shadows, with Richardson playing a fundamentally good man but whose face suggests a hint of threat at times, and if it feels in service of a moral lesson, it’s at least not hammered home too much.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carol Reed; Writers William Templeton, Lesley Storm and Graham Greene (based on Greene’s short story “The Basement Room”); Cinematographer George Périnal; Starring Ralph Richardson, Bobby Henrey, Michèle Morgan, Sonia Dresdel, Jack Hawkins; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 September 2020.