Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Screenplay: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Starring: David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Leslie Banks, Cyril Cusack, A Bottle of Whisky, Michael Gough, Sid James
Country: UK
Running Time: 106 minutes
Year: 1949

Released in 1949, Powell and Pressburger’s The Small Back Room was a flop and, in many respects, it’s easy to see why. It’s also marvellous. If you’re simply reading this because you need a nudge then consider yourself nudged. This is a lovingly restored, exemplary release from StudioCanal in every respect and deserves the attention of any film fan.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Archers production company had always been synonymous with quality, and in retrospect, their adaptation of Nigel Balchin’s book is no exception. It does lack an easy hook. A Matter of Life and Death was a ghost story; The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus gorgeous technicolour epics on a grand scale. In comparison, a sombre black and white picture set during the war when 1949’s filmgoers would have been fed-up of hearing about it, is a harder sell.

Plus, the narrative is very loose. It’s ostensibly about the hidden figures in the war effort. The guys literally under London’s noses, in small dark rooms, working on intelligence about the latest, ever more deadly weapons. It’s actually about David Farrar’s disillusioned, borderline alcoholic trying not to drink his bottle of whisky to dull the pain of his gammy leg.

It’s utterly riveting. No, honest, it really is. A marriage of realism and expressionism, it’s pretty much a Film Noir and a masterpiece of mise en scene. Not a moment, not a single frame is wasted, and every scene could be unpicked by a slack-jawed film student, even while the so-called plot is enthusiastically wellied into the long grass. I often cite The Ladykillers as the most demonstrably perfect film ever made because of its machine-tooled palindromic screenplay. This thing is like that film’s evil twin, as close to subversive as Powell would get until Peeping Tom.

Even Powell and Pressburger’s most well-known work had an edge. It’s easy to dismiss as cosy, the languid pace, stiff-upper lips and occasionally sentimental codas of their films, but there’s a reason they rival Hitchcock as Britain’s finest filmmakers. The Small Back Room is exactly the film they intended to make and, unusually, they clearly didn’t care much for the timing, which left audiences nonplussed. Years later, Powell would push it too far with Peeping Tom, so maybe there was always a rebellious glint in their eye.

Testing the edges of 1940s buttoned-up Britishness, The Small Back Room has a cynical, portentous tone, despite the easy, lengthy longueurs and wry humour. The cast is excellent, especially the faintly weary Farrar. Kathleen Byron plays his exasperated foil and Michael Gough appears a couple of times. In fact, he opens the film, hence potential frustration when the cheeky narrative doesn’t follow him. Transpires he’s more a supporting character, like Sid James who really impresses in his small screen time.

The Small Back Room proves to be an excellent primer for Powell and Pressburger’s imitable style. Their incredible mise en scene keeps lengthy, dialogue-heavy scenes engrossing. Take for example a scene in a club, a conversation between Farrar and Kathleen Byron, enlivened by the camera imperceptibly moving instead of cutting. Finally, the mystery of the German bomb eventually results in an astonishingly tense scene on Chesil Beach.

In what transpires to be a very human film, unconcerned with the machinations of international intrigue after all, the real story is Rice’s (Farrar) trauma. The way that bottle eats away at him is fascinating. The scene where Rice battles the temptation is way ahead of its time, calling to mind Salvador Dali. It alienated viewers at the time, but now we can appreciate it for what it is.

The whole film is quite superb and makes for an odd companion to Oppenheimer with a touch of Hurt Locker, but with none of the hyperbole. It’s fascinating that so much brilliant filmmaking sits within a slight story with an eccentric premise. And this release from StudioCanal is a perfect example of why physical media is important. A mid-tier Archer’s film, with no discernible plot, that flopped on release, does not deserve to be lost on a streaming channel somewhere.


This is a simply perfect restoration and one of the finest 4K remasters I’ve seen. It looks gorgeous, even on Blu-Ray; a UHD release could hardly find much more, especially on the interior scenes. And the exterior shots occasionally have some genuinely beautiful moments. Black and white is harder to restore than colour, but the results can render detail and a lovely grain like nothing else.

It’s a dark film, with abrupt shifts in lighting even within a single scene. The contrast in the transfer is sympathetic to every nuance. It really is a marvel and a tribute to an eccentric production.


The presentation is clean and perfectly balanced throughout. I don’t think that’s a lazy observation, despite the film’s age meaning it was never going to be a muscular surround track; but mise en scene includes absolutely everything. And so, the sound on The Small Back Room is vital. There is no music and the diegetic sound design comes to the fore. It is as extraordinary as anything else.


  • Restoring The Small Back Room – a fascinating insight into the unique challenges faced in restoring the film. And considering the results are peerless, this is well worth watching.
  • Interview With Kevin McDonald – a director himself (Last King of Scotland), McDonald is also Emmeric’s grandson. His observations are backed up with an intimate knowledge of the film’s history.
  • Deciding The Archers: Ian Christie On The Small Back Room – another substantial piece looking at the history of the film. Dovetails nicely with the previous piece, despite overlapping on some points.
  • Audio Commentary Featuring Film Scholar Charles Barr – rather dry, but full of well informed detail by Barr.
  • Interview With Cinematographer Christopher Challis – another 20 minute plus interview, this time with Challis who photographed several of Powell and Pressburger’s films.
  • The Making Of An Englishman – a lovely documentary made by Kevin McDonald. An esoteric piece he originally made for Channel 4, as he traces Emmeric Pressburger’s his grandfather’s life.
The Small Back Room
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