Certain varietals of grandly gestured cinema inspires crazed, indecipherable, passionate devotion among cinephiles: the films by Welles, Ophuls, Sirk, Leone, Scorsese and Wong, for example, tend to magnetize our nerve endings more than our frontal lobes, and such infatuations tend to last a lifetime. Of course the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger canon belongs on the list; it’s not a question of whether you’re in love with an “Archers” film, but which one, and the likely suspects usually emanate from the extraordinary, romantic-neurotic epic run of A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcisuss (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).
But immediately thereafter, switching studios and getting a little tired of sweeping dreaminess, the pair made The Small Back Room (1949), a hand-sized Brit-noir delirium that virtually sits in the sweaty lap of a disaffected, one-footed munitions expert (David Farrar) who battles depression and wild alcoholism during the war as he’s called upon to defuse a particularly insidious kind of German boobytrap bomb. The film is famous for the darkling, Magritte-ish haunted-by-booze hallucination scene, but the generalized vibe is as hyperliterate, thoroughly grown-up and intensely imagined as any of the team’s more famous shots in the dark. Surely this lonely little beast of a movie is one of cinema’s great renditions of self-loathing, but it’s also a vital addition to the portrait gallery that Powell and Pressburger crafted of mid-century British life in all of its temperate wisdom and sharp-eyed wartime detail.
The Small Back Room plays on Sunday as part of Film Forum‘s Brit Noir series, which begins today and continues through mid-September.