September 27, 2008

Acting, II

Still coming down after The Small Back Room (1949)...

Odd because the acting was more traditional, but piercing because it offered some insight into what I wrote earlier, although I think I will ignore that entirely. Immediately I thought this served as a great parallel and counter-point to Gone to Earth (1950). The Small Back Room is darker in tone but lighter in principle while Gone to Earth is just the opposite, both offering startling moments.

The opening scenes of The Small Back Room had me thinking this would be a film of action, something like 49th Parallel (1941) or One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), where personal drama is entirely forgotten under pressure of danger, the "Here we are; What do we do now?" situation. But it quickly becomes personal drama. Adult personal drama. Something along mainstream lines... yet still unmistakably P+P.

I began thinking about acting the way I usually think about it: as a minor part of an integral whole. How could I have tried to convince myself differently? Actors only have as much power as you give them, and perhaps this is what impresses me about Powell's direction and Pressburger's writing. Impressive not in that they abuse their power but that the actors do not need it. Usually. The Small Back Room gives a surprising amount of power to the actors, let's Farrar be dark and moody, but their is still that touch of Powell I have to address.

It's in screen psychology. Rather than giving characters monologues and emotional explosions, their psychology is expressed in the cinematic universe around them. In the obvious, it is the expressionistic sequence in which Rice is tortured by the bottle and clock. More subtly, it is the way we see Rice leave the key in the lock or hear his reactions through the voice of a nervous secretary operating the wire. It is this that keeps much of a character's psychology internal, this that allows for stoicism.

If The Small Back Room is so grown-up, perhaps it is because of the acting. Not that the story or characters by themselves are mature, but that the filmmakers take so mature an approach to the material. No, the actors have no power, but they are needed.


gaston monescu said...

Everything that you said about acting in the previous post pretty much sums up my thoughts on the subject, except with much better vocabulary and grammar.
I have been rewatching a lot of P+P lately, and I think they really hit the nail on my personal views on acting. As you said, the actors are necessary but not very powerful.

As for Small Back Room, one of the reasons I found it so interesting was that it was suppose to be an action(-ish) film, like Powell's earlier "propagandas" and quickies, though it was a bit more stylized and focused more on character, much like P+P's more lavish 40's efforts. So it was an exciting viewing for a fanboy like me.

How did you find the film mature? Did you find it more mature than P+P's other films? It's not that I disagree or anything, but I've usually found all of their films to be much more mature than most other filmmakers.

Ian said...

"How did you find the film mature? Did you find it more mature than P+P's other films?"
Difficult question. Not that I would call the film itself more mature--all of P+P's films reached different points of maturity--but that the characters were actively mature and asserting their adulthood...

No, I don't think that's it. Eh, it is not something I can accurately explain, but it really really impressed me watching the characters. In real life, it is easy to tell when watching people just what they are missing in terms of wisdom and maturity. There was something about Sammy and Susan in the movie that was so overwhelmingly adult in my mind--and perhaps it is because they are handling more complex issues in more complex ways in comparison to other P+P films. Hmm...

gaston monescu said...

Yeah, maturity in film is something that is pretty much impossible for me to explain too. Which is a shame, because I use the term so much.
Sammy and Susan were very adult in their way, but I find that sense of developed nature in quite a bit of P+P's characters. They are all mature in their own way; the personal discipline in their characters is very intriguing and not to mention very appealing and inspiring.