David Farrar did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Sammy Rice in The Small Back Room.
David Farrar returns to working with Powell and Pressburger after playing the rather cold yet still the object of some of the nuns' affection in Black Narcissus. Interestingly Farrar once again shares the screen with Kathleen Byron, this time playing Sammy's girlfriend/the secretary for his department Susan, thankfully this time both are in a much healthier relationship than the one found in their previous film together. Farrar's performance here though is a major departure from that earlier turn in more ways than that though. Farrar not only is the lead here, but the part allows him to create a far more intimate character for us to sympathize with whereas his role in Narcissus was purposefully distant. Farrar might as well be a different actor with how different his very presence here is compared to that earlier role. This is evident from his first scene where a military officer, Captain Dick Stewart (Michael Gough) goes to find Sammy in order to help him with the problem of an unusual mind that has caused several deaths of civilians. We find Sammy in a bar and Farrar's performance does have this certain charisma to it in this initial scene. It is a modest charisma which Farrar attaches carefully to when his expertise is called upon, as it is by the Captain, to help solve the problem, as Farrar finds this certain spark within the man in this moment. This is a pivotal factor that Farrar intelligently introduces that keeps a possible optimism within the character by giving a hope to the man as connected to this particular problem before we learn more about his personal problems.
Once the Captain leaves, and we are left with Sammy and Susan where in an instance any propriety for the guest is lost in Farrar's performance. Farrar is rather outstanding in this scene in revealing so much in very little time. In the moment Farrar drops putting up any facade, the facade only being though that he was hiding the burden of his pain from his artificial foot. Farrar is terrific in that moment of release not a release of comfort, but rather of letting his ache and discomfort out. Farrar goes further with this though in his first scene directly with Byron. The two have excellent chemistry together, which is rather notable considering their purposeful anti-chemistry found in their previous film together. That is not to say this is anything perfect though in terms of a relationship rather both Farrar and Byron are marvelous in the way they create this longstanding relationship between the two. In simply the way they look upon each other the love between the two is deeply felt even in silence. There is more though as Farrar in the moment reveals the sheer intensity of Sammy's vulnerability which he portrays towards Susan, that Farrar shows him looking for any sort of comfort from her. These moments though are particularly natural as the two fall into this state of Susan trying to offer any relief, while Sammy suffers, and both actors realize it as this way they've been for some time.
Farrar's performance is a captivating piece of work in the way he realizes
essentially both the failure and potential of Sammy in every facet of his
life. The ease Farrar and Byron have together is pivotal as the time they've been together is a given, but again this is not the two actors creating a fairy tale relationship. They do something far more remarkable though in creating the difficulty in the relationship despite keeping the mutual love for one another as unmistakable truth within it all. Farrar portrays that as a constant within his own work yet he compromises it in a certain way in portraying that the comfort she offers never quite assuages that physical pain. Farrar takes this further though in portraying this amplification of the pain by presenting this self-pity around the moments, showing it to be this almost constant burden on his mind. Farrar is very effective in his scenes with Byron around other company as in every glance and reaction to others, there is this inherent insecurity that Farrar finds. It's brilliantly portrayed in his performance though as he brings out of that pain and self-pity as this troubling mindset. Farrar finds that doubt that he exudes from himself that finds the way Sammy can't seem to help but doubt where or not Susan's love for him is completely earnest. Again what's so incredible about what Farrar does is he makes it this problematic thought that finds itself in his mind, that he shows that he almost tries to fight against, yet it can't help but poison his mind.
The fall back for most of Sammy's suffering both mental and physical is alcohol. This is a performance as an alcoholic however Farrar is careful in his approach in this regard. When he is drinking he does not attach any specific desire for the drink in itself so to speak. Farrar instead finds that in the moment of drinking he portrays rather the desire to drown out his suffering, though he's rather affecting in showing that Sammy never quite achieves that even at his drunkest. As a character study we see Sammy within his job as well where he deals with bureaucratic nonsense and his colleagues making decisions for the wrong reasons. Farrar in these scenes is once again terrific in finding the mindset of Sammy as his reactions in dealing with the other men is this quiet frustration and resignation. It is only when he's called to describe his feelings through his work itself that Farrar reveals so effectively a great strength and confidence in Sammy as it relates to the one thing he can be absolutely certain of, which is his intelligence. Farrar never plays the insufferable genius but rather reveals the suffering genius in quite the poignant fashion. Eventually his self pity leads to Susan leaving him, and we are given Sammy at his worst as he falls completely into his drinking while lashing out at everyone in a drunken stupor. This could be the time for some wild overacting, yet Farrar stays true to the character as he rightfully brings the messiness of the state yet since he does not overplay it he is very moving in just revealing the ugliness of his inebriation and the severity of his anguish wrapped up in one. Sammy is given a chance for redemption though when he is called upon to solve the mystery of how to disarm one of the live mines. Now Farrar's approach to any scene where Sammy's expertise comes into play here as his sort of turnaround feels natural, since his assurance in that regard had been well established by Farrar before this point. Farrar does not forget what came before though as when he volunteers to disarm it himself in his eyes Farrar reflects this sort of bravery in part comes to his sadness towards the rest of his life. The disarmament is a fantastic scene and Farrar is a highlight of it. He helps to ratchet the tension not only because he's made us care for Sammy up to this point, but also in the moment he finds that certain fear in every moment, with every risky maneuver. Through the scene though Farrar naturally makes it a hopeful one by showing in every action the confidence of the man fully taking over, and the anguish fading away as he comes closer to a real undisputed success. I have to admit this performance took me a bit by surprise as this is a great performance by David Farrar. He creates such a vivid portrait of the troubled scientist never falling into cliche, but rather making the man's story truly resonate in powerful fashion.