The Small Back Room


Directed By

Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger


The Small Back Room (1949) was an interesting departure from the Technicolour fantasies audiences had become used to from the legendary filmmaking duo Powell and Pressburger (A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes). The story of the troubled love affair between a tormented back-room scientist and a secretary, told against a background of ministerial intrigue and Empire-building during WW2, it is a gorgeously monochromatic drama adapted from the best-selling novel by Nigel Balchin.

Sammy Rice (David Farrar) was the army’s finest bomb disposal officer until he was injured in the war. Now part of a specialist ‘back room’ team, he dismantles booby-trapped Nazi bombs. He falls in love with Susan (Kathleen Byron), a colleague, and the two begin a secret affair. However, embittered by life, he feels inferior: inferior as a lover, inferior as a man unable to wear uniform, inferior in his work. Although a brilliant scientist, he allows himself to be exploited by his power-hungry boss and haunted by his past, he drowns his sorrows in whiskey. Sammy’s life is descending into disarray when the news comes; a bomb has exploded with catastrophic consequences, and another has been found. Faced with the biggest challenge of his career, Sammy must face his demons and take his life in his hands to solve the mystery of the bomb’s lethal mechanism.

The Small Back Room has a grittier and darker tone than many of Powell and Pressburger’s films – a British noir with dramatic camerawork from Christopher Challis (Arabesque, The Deep), heightening the claustrophobia and psychological tension of the narrative with the use of close-ups.  The film was nominated for the 1950 BAFTA for Best British Film.  

David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Leslie Banks, Michael Gough, Cyril Cusack, Milton Rosmer, Walter Fitzgerald, Emrys Jones, Michael Goodliffe
Other Credits

Based on the novel by Nigel Balchin

Cinematography by Christoper Challis

Release Date
27 May 2024
  • New Restoring The Small Back Room
  • New A Tortured Hero: Kevin MacDonald on The Small Back Room
  • New Defusing the Archers: Professor Ian Christie on The Small Back Room
  • Audio commentary featuring film scholar Charles Barr
  • Interview with cinematographer Christopher Challis
  • The Making of An Englishman documentary directed by Kevin MacDonald


Restoration Details

The Small Back Room was restored by The Film Foundation and BFI National Archive in association with STUDIOCANAL. Funding provided by The Film Foundation and STUDIOCANAL. Special thanks to Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker for their consultation.  The 4K restoration used the original 35mm nitrate negative, a 35mm safety dupe negative, and a 35mm nitrate combined dupe positive.  4K Scanning by Silver Salt Restoration Limited in London.  Picture restoration by Cineric, Inc. in New York.  Audio restoration by the BFI National Archive.

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