From the Criterion Collection comes the wartime drama "The Small Black Room" (1949). MPI, meanwhile, brings us a pair of older shorter titles on one DVD: "The Phantom Light" (1935) and "Red Ensign" (1934).
"The Small Back Room" came after a remarkable string of films from the Archers -- aka Powell and writer Emeric Pressburger. How's this for a a five-year period: "The Red Shoes," "I Know Where I'm Going!" "A Canterbury Tale" and "Black Narcissus."
The Archers had done a good bit of work in color, but returned to their wartime filmmaking methods with "Black Room," shot in contrasty black and white. The public, perhaps, was not ready to return to the war years in 1949, and the film tanked.
Critics were impressed, but some pointed out that the film didn't seem to know if it was a war movie or a domestic study. The New York Times called it a "curiously stilted drama." Film academic Charles Barr, who does the Criterion DVD's commentary, calls "Black Room" a mix of "realism, expressionism, documentary record and film noir."
The movie contains a trio of arcs. The unifying element is Sammy Rice (David Farrar), an explosives expert/scientist given to childlike rages and alcoholic weirdness. He'd long ago lost a foot in unexplained fashion. Rice lives with his girlfriend (Kathleen Byron), a nurturing and long-suffering secretary in the same war research center. (Actors Farrar and Byron appeared together memorably in "Narcissus" the year before.)
Rice is asked to evaluate a new armor-piercing weapon that's been caught up in politics and petty bureaucratic wrangling. Meanwhile, Hitler and "Jerry" start planting curious explosive devices around England that seem to target schoolchildren. Rice works the mystery, probably hoping to blow himself up.
The military storylines do feel secondary to the domestic drama, with the marvelous, otherworldly actress Byron always threatening to vaporize the best efforts of Farrar. Powell's cameras seem in love with her.
Film buffs know the movie for two scenes: one in which the flawed scientist is caught up in a Dali-esque alcoholic delirium; and another great piece of suspense in which he tries to disarm one of the Germans' fiendish devices on a pebble-covered beach.
Powell noted that the beach scene ran about 17 minutes, the same as the big number in "The Red Shoes" -- all an audience can handle, he said.
Scriptwriter Pressburger adapted the film from a well-regarded novel by Nigel Balchin. Powell wanted to do the project largely because of the bomb-disarming chapter. "It was one of those cinema piece de resistance" scenes over-analyzed by film schools, he wrote in his autobiography. If critics all hated the delirium sequence, they loved this one and praised its suspense, the director said.
From the great distance of today, "The Small Black Room" looks pretty good -- far better than so many famed WWII dramas that fell victim to time. The film noir lighting and heavy atmospherics help make the film audience-friendly in the new century.
"The more you look at the film, the more complex it and its hero become," Barr says on his (sleepy) DVD track. He declines to do a "full psychoanalytical reading," but allows that the small bomb's black casing looks mighty phallic.
The film's attention to military authenticity also helps: "We were all very much aware of what things were like" during the war, says cinematographer Chris Challis. Powell & Pressman cranked out propaganda films for the government only years before, some of them quite watchable today.
Challis, who's interviewed in a 20-minute extra, says the beach scene "was all Mickey" (Powell). "He had a wonderful visual sense; he always knew how he wanted his films to look." The other extra feature has Powell reading from his memoirs, as he did on Criterion's recent rerelease of "The Thief of Bagdad."
Audio and video are up to Criterion's standards.
"The Phantom Light," from the MPI collection "Classic British Thrillers," concerns mysterious goings-on at a lighthouse off the coast of Wales. The working elements are "ghosts and murderers and thugs."
Gordon Harker gets all the great lines as a Cockney lighthouse keeper who replaces the former tenant, who disappeared in the fog and black waters. Then there's that weird light ...
"The Phantom Light's" odd villagers and supernatural possibilities look forward to the Archers' "A Canterbury Tale" (a magnificent film also out on Criterion -- link goes to the blog's review). "Phantom Light" runs a snappy and pleasurable 75 minutes.
"Red Ensign" also keeps it short (66 minutes), but brings a lot more substance. Like "Phantom Light," it's also a "quota quickie" film, made without Pressman.
"Red Ensign" tells of a maverick Scottish shipmaker out to create a new freighter so radical that it returns the sagging British fleet to commercial viability.
The shipbuilder (Leslie Banks of "The Most Dangerous Game" fame) proves to be a Mr. Bill kind of guy, slapped down by evil competitors, the law and his own board of directors, but always rising again. The movie has a cut-rate "Citizen Kane" feel to it at times, along with some fine wry humor.
The third title in the MPI set, "The Upturned Glass," stars a young James Mason. All of the films suffer from various typical age marks, such as flashing and negative scratches, but the presentations are quite workable.