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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.33:1 Standard
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • Audio commentary featuring film scholar Charles Barr
  • New video interview with cinematographer Chris Challis
  • Excerpts from Michael Powell's audio dictations for his autobiography

The Small Back Room


Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Starring: David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough, Cyril Cusack, Robert Morley, Leslie Banks
1949 | 107 Minutes | Licensor: Studio Canal

Release Information
DVD | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #441 | Out of print
RLJ Entertainment

Release Date: August 19, 2008
Review Date: July 29, 2008

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SYNOPSIS

After the lavish Technicolor spectacle of The Red Shoes, British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger retreated into the inward, shadowy recesses of this moody, crackling character study. Based on the acclaimed novel by Nigel Balchin, The Small Back Room details the professional and personal travails of troubled, alcoholic research scientist and military bomb-disposal expert Sammy Rice (David Farrar), who, while struggling with a complex relationship with secretary-girlfriend Susan (Kathleen Byron), is hired by the government to advise on a dangerous new German weapon. Frank and intimate, deftly mixing suspense and romance, The Small Back Room is an atmospheric, post-World War II gem.

Forum members rate this film 7.8/10

 

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PICTURE

The Small Back Room is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this dual-layered disc. The image has unfortunately been pictureboxed, presenting a black border around the entire picture.

Overall the image is pretty good. The transfer is sharp, presenting an excellent amount of detail through most of the film, some longer shots looking a little softer. Contrast is excellent presenting strong blacks and grays, and I didn’t notice any artifacts.

The print has a few issues. Grain can get very heavy during a few sequences, making the image look a little fuzzier. There are a few specs of debris here and there, but vertical lines constantly appear throughout the film, showing for a few frames, disappearing, and then showing up again. Still, despite the flaws within the print the transfer overall is quite strong and I doubt many will have an issue with it.

7/10

All DVD screen captures are presented in their original size from the source disc. Images have been compressed slightly to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

The disc includes an average Dolby Digital mono track. The track presents fairly strong dialogue and music, it sounds clear and other than a mild hiss that is noticeable on occasion it’s quite clean.

7/10

SUPPLEMENTS

This high-tiered release comes with only a handful of supplements, the higher price point probably having to do with the audio commentary included with the release.

And that’s unfortunate because I was quite disappointed with the commentary. Recorded by film scholar Charles Barr, it’s an incredibly dry, stop-and-go track that actually seems to be narrating the film rather than offering an analysis. At times he does comment on the techniques used by Powell in the film, such as the use of the camera, focusing of the shots, and placement of the actors, and also points out quite a few actors who either started out in the film or were still quite early in their careers before going off to do bigger and better things. These types of moments prove more fascinating, as does some background on the “Whiskey Bottle” sequence and the critical/public response to the film, but he pretty much just explains what’s going on within the film in the driest way possible. I really didn't like it at all and I wish they could have grabbed Bruce Eder to provide a track for the film. Thankfully the remaining supplements prove much more interesting.

The next supplement is a video interview with cinematographer Chris Challis who worked on The Small Back Room and what a wonderful little interview this is. Running 21-minutes and enhanced for widescreen televisions, Challis begins with his early career, how he first met Powell (Challis was working with Technicolor at the time Thief of Bagdad was being made) and then how he eventually came to work with Powell. He does discuss this film, but also touches on other films he worked with Powell on, even going over some of his disappointments and things he was proud of. Like my grandfather he occasionally starts with a story and then veers off only to come back to it, but his stories are quite interesting, offering information on the relationship between Powell and actor Esmond Knight, his thoughts on the professional relationship between Powell and Pressburger, even getting into Pressburger’s background. He also throws in a Billy Wilder story as well. Quite a charming and interesting interview.

And closing off the disc is another collection of audio recordings from Michael Powell for his autobiography, similar to what was found on the Criterion DVD of The Thief of Bagdad. The recordings play over a chapter index of seven chapters and run 48-minutes. If you heard the recordings on the Bagdad release and liked those chances are you’ll also enjoy these. Powell talks a bit about Alexander Korda and gives his honest opinion of the man, which isn’t always flattering but you can tell Powell still respected him a great deal. He talks about The Small Back Room and getting the film together, touching on the performers, his feelings towards them, and also talks about the disappointing reception of the film upon its release, but he still points out how proud he is of the film. his comments cover the “Whiskey Bottle” sequence and the uncertainty of some of the crew about it, and he even mentions a deleted scene (that I assume is lost) involving some boys who find one of the film’s booby-trapped bombs, and also talks about the actress that appeared in that sequence only to be completely cut out of the film. Great collection of recordings and well worth listening to.

The small booklet included with this release has an essay on the film by Nick James. Most of the interesting material from the commentary is found in this booklet so I would actually recommend reading the booklet over listening to the commentary.

And that unfortunately closes of the release in terms of supplements. The commentary was a large disappointment for me, finding it quite dry and incredibly uninformative. Thankfully the release still comes with a great interview with the film’s cinematographer and another collection of audio recordings by Michael Powell. These almost make up for the commentary track.

6/10

CLOSING

Despite the constant print damage the disc still presents another strong, sharp black and white transfer. But the fact that the release is within the higher price point and its big feature, the commentary, is a bust makes it harder for me to give it a full-hearted recommendation. Still, I feel the other aspects of the release are strong enough to please most who decide to pick up this title.


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