Turner Classic Film Fest: A history of violence

I know, pretty dark headline for  a post about a really fun, glamor heavy film fest. All the more so because, at least for me, TCM  Fest is the kind of event that  can put you in a kind of steel bubble which the daily news can barely pierce. If another Cuban Missile Crisis happened during Comic-Con, what would happen? Maybe if it ended differently this time.

Indeed, even a momentous event  like the death of Osama Bin Laden could just barely penetrate TCM’s  mix of Hollywood fantasy and scholarship. For me, the news first came as I overheard another filmgoer during an intermission of “West Side Story,” which I had popped in on just to see how good the 70mm print was, say to another. “No, he’s really dead.” I figured it was another classic film star gone forever. George Chakiris, who played Sharks leader Bernardo, had introduced the screening, but how were Jets Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn doing?

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The Small Back Room

Life during wartime is getting to English weapons researcher and bomb disposal expert Sammy Rice (David Farrar). He’s in constant pain from an artificial foot and his preferred method of medication, whiskey, is highly problematic. It gets worse because his struggle to avoid drinking is just one of a few thorny issues that’s giving Susan (Kathleen Byron), his very serious girlfriend, some equally serious doubts about their future. Oh, and those damned bloody Nazis have taken to leaving a new kind of tricky unexploded bomb laying around, and it’s killing local soldiers and Prof. Rice’s own colleagues.

Based on a famed wartime novel by Michael Balcon, 1951’s “The Small Back Room” is one of the less well known films from “the Archers,” the writing and directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Best known for ravishing and slightly insane Technicolor spectaculars like “A Matter of Life and Death,” “The Red Shoes,” and their masterpiece, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” the influential pair also had a flair for creating genuinely captivating black and white thrillers and love stories. “The Small Back Room” is a bit of both and possesses a degree of complexity and implied sexuality unusual in its time, and also today. Still, the film maybe bites off a bit more than it can chew resulting in a relatively distancing second act, and one semi-dream sequence involving a giant whiskey bottle shows how Pressburger/Powell’s admirable creative risk-taking could sometimes lead to unintended laughs. Still, there is humor, fine drama, suspense in the climactic bomb disposal sequence, and an amazing cast of some of Britain’s best local talent. This may not be the Archers at their absolute best but, trust me, that’s no insult.

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