7 AUGUST 2004, Page 45

Chekhov on Chesil Beach

Simon Heifer

By the time Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger came to make The Small Back Room in 1948-49 they had acquired a reputation as the most adventurous, imaginative and eccentric team in the English cinema. Their six preceding films — The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I'm Going, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes — had all stretched what appeared to be the conventional limits of cinematography and dialogue. The Small Back Room in many respects took the genre back to where they had left it in the early years of the war, with 49th Parallel and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing: it is a story of an act of heroism told with deep realism. It is also the team's most modern film, stripped of the mild pretentiousness of some of their earlier offerings, and observing realities in a medium not required, any longer, for propaganda.

The film, set in 1943, is based on a novel by Nigel Balchin. It is the story of Sammy Rice, a science don turned bomb-disposal expert. Rice has lost one of his feet — we are not told how, but maiming during an act of heroism must be assumed — and, partly because of the pain he suffers and partly because of the strain of his work, he has a drink problem. His girlfriend and colleague Sue — and one of the more advanced features of this film is their sexual relationship, of which we are left in no doubt — seeks to support him to the limits of her own forbearance. A new booby-trapped bomb starts to drop on Britain, killing mainly children, who set it off by picking it up. Rice befriends an army officer who wishes to enlist him in the search for a means of disabling this bomb. The officer himself is killed trying to defuse one. Rice abandons an alcoholic binge to try,' to disarm a second. The climax of the film takes place on Chesil Beach in Dorset, with Rice lying on the ever-shifting shingle trying, eventually successfully, to make safe the bomb. He lives to tell the tale, and to pass on the secret of rendering the weapon harmless.

David Farrar, a thinking woman's matinee idol who had starred in Black Narcissus, plays Rice. It is for the most part an understated performance, though the self-consciously clever dialogue that Pressburger puts into his characters' mouths often serves to draw more attention to the players than might have been intended. Some of the exchanges between Rice and the doomed bomb-disposal officer (played by the immortal Michael Gough) are of a tone reminiscent of Chekhov or Brecht. It is a trait the film has in common with some of its immediate predecessors from the Archers' stable. Pressburger used his characters as the conduit for ideas and discourse, and the greater tone of realism of this film does not exclude that. The Powell and Pressburger repertory company of actors, many of whom appeared in two or three of the films, seemed to have been chosen for their ability to intuit the importance of the dialogue that went far beyond what the audience would actually hear.

The show is stolen, however, by Kathleen Byron as the long-suffering Sue. Then in her mid-twenties, she had been one of Powell's conquests and he has the camera linger on her with a Hollywood soft-focus. Her performance, too, is understated, in her case to the point at times of a laconic near-invisibility. It makes the point about the selfobsessed character of Rice in counterpoint to her self-denial and self-effacement. Her restraint helps establish her as the reference point of sanity and solidity in the mad world that Rice chooses to inhabit. None of the main male stars of the film — Farrar, Gough or Jack Hawkins, who in a superbly smarmy performance as Rice's boss displays a range that would be denied him in his stiffupper-lip roles of the 1950s — can be described as remotely normal. Sue is aggressively so. Some critics have asked why she puts up with a self-pitying whiner like Rice. The answer is that she recognises his heroism, sees her essential part in it, and acts as the angel of his redemption.

The film presents a superbly paced picture of London life in the 1940s. Its atmosphere is predominantly dark. The flamboyance that marks out so many of the preceding Powell and Pressburger films may be absent, but its absence allows the director and writer to build characters who, while romanticised, are rooted in real life. Those characters, even those with walk-on parts, are always clear-cut, unambiguous, and consciously developing a relationship not merely with their audience but also with their fellow actors, something not always true of films of this period. When it was released in 1949, the film was a critical success but a box-office failure. Some dismiss it now as a 'minor', albeit charming, film from the team. In its artistic and intellectual achievement it is, in its way, highly original and as important as almost any of their other work. It is probably Farrar's best performance: he retired from acting, disenchanted, at the age of 52, just over a decade later, fed up with being asked to play the fathers or uncles of the leading lady. And viewers of the DVD will ask why Miss Byron, who is now in her 80s and has been seen in recent years in various television roles, never became one of the greatest British actresses of the last century.

The new DVD of the film is made by Warner. The print is clear but a little dark, which I think is how Powell intended it to be. It certainly helps to convey what to contemporary audiences would have been a convincing representation of London in wartime, The sound reproduction is excellent. It deserves a place in the film library of any aficionado of the golden era in British film-making that followed the second world war.

Simon Helfer is a columnist on the Daily Mail.