Friday, October 17, 2008

Delirium Tremendous

At the time of its release in 1949, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's THE SMALL BACK ROOM was praised as a welcome return to the postwar realism that audiences had come to expect of "The Archers" after their Technicolorful, fantasmagorical THE RED SHOES. The respectful but compact reputation enjoyed by this intimate wartime drama overlooks one of its most startling achievements, a sequence in which aging munitions expert Sammy Rice (David Farrar) -- tin-legged, alcoholic, self-loathing and lovesick -- finds himself alone in a room with an unopened bottle of whiskey as every tick of the clock suggests that his lover Susan (Kathleen Byron) has stood him up on their usual Wednesday night together.

The sequence, designed by Hein Heckroth, uses a stunning photograph of Byron to nudge Sammy's feelings of being teased. (There are hints of the mad siren that Byron becomes in the finale of BLACK NARCISSSUS in the way her eyes are lighted here.) Cinematographer Christopher Challis, working with Powell, ensures that, as Sammy paces impatiently about his apartment on his hurting leg, that the bottle of whisky set aside by the couple to celebrate the eventual end of the war is positioned threateningly in the foreground -- as it is in Sammy's consciousness -- whenever Susan's taunting portrait isn't. It's helpful to know that Sammy can't handle whiskey and the local publican (Sidney James) refuses to serve it to him, no matter how much his leg pains him.

Suddenly, this "realistic" minor masterpiece jolts into expressionism with a remarkable series of composed images that find Sammy more ogreishly dominated by the ticking clock -- a device conveying a double meaning in a scenario about British officers striving to learn how to dismantle unexploded "Jerry" bombs without incurring new casualties. The mise en scène suggests that Sammy is now himself a ticking time bomb.

Criterion's DVD of the film (the subject of Ramsey Campbell's column in VIDEO WATCHDOG #146, now in preparation) includes a new video interview with cinematographer Challis, who recalls how shots such as these were filmed with split diopters and other means of keeping the two disproportionate sides of the screen in equal focus.


Note the wallpaper in Sammy's flat in this Dutch angled set-up, because it's going to change.

There is something about this profile shot of Farrar that strongly evokes compositions in religious art, emphasizing his test of spirit.
Now the bottle begins to multiply within the patterns of the wallpaper.

Then the wallpaper explodes into panels of ticking clocks.

Sammy finds himself crucified within their multiplicity.

Sammy is literally pinned to the wall by the looming bottle of temptation, now grown to enormous proportions as it bullies him.

As he squeezes himself free, he edges along the wallpaper -- note that the bottles integrated into the design have here assumed a more three-dimensional presence and tactility.

As he emerges from the pinch, Sammy is rendered into a complete coward by temptation, confirming his worst fears about himself -- which also show the way to his only salvation. Namely, he's nothing without Susan.
The hallucination sequence continues for quite a bit longer, but I don't want to spoil it for newcomers. What I will say is that the resolution of the sequence and the situation confirms, in its unexpected elements of irony, humanity and humor, why Michael Powell was one of cinema's most singular talents.

After an excruciatingly suspenseful bomb defusion sequence, THE SMALL BACK ROOM grants Sammy and Susan a happy ending. Exhausted but triumphant, Sammy finds the strength and self-respect to demand and receive the authority that's rightfully his, which Susan has been unsuccessfully goading him toward for the balance of the picture. He returns to his smashed-up apartment, where his homecoming is made magical by his discovery that everything broken -- including the picture frame that held Susan's taunting portrait -- has been fixed, replaced or put back in its proper place by his lover's caring hands. I've seen scenes in religious films of people ascending into Heaven itself that weren't filmed with half of this scene's payload of emotion and fulfillment.
Twice in the many years we've been together -- or, rather, as we've been reunited after the rare times we've been apart -- Donna has surprised me by imposing order on rooms that I've left in complete disarray (as I tend to do). Both times, I was extraordinarily moved by what she accomplished with this thoughtful gesture: not just a reordering of my environment, it was like being given a sense of restored well-being, the gift of a fresh outlook. For this reason, the finale of THE SMALL BACK ROOM held a special resonance for me, but the movie as a whole took me completely by surprise as one of Powell and Pressburger's most note-perfect studies of the human heart.

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