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A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Review from "The Monthly Film Bulletin"

Great Britain, 1944
Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Full cast and crew (at the IMDb)

   Bob Johnson, an American serviceman on his way to meet a friend in Canterbury, gets out at a small village station by mistake in the blackout. Bewildered, he is befriended by Alison Smith, a London salesgirl turned landgirl, and Peter Gibbs, a British soldier on his way back to camp outside the village. As they leave the station, a mysterious figure jumps from the shadows and pours glue on Alison's hair. Bob and Peter give chase to the town hall, but the only person there is the local magistrate, Thomas Colpeper, a gentleman farmer for whom Alison has come to work, She learns that she is the glueman's eleventh victim. and that Colpeper has no use for inexperienced landgirls. Next day, she gets a job on another farm, while Bob, curious about the glueman's identity, decides to stay on in order to help expose him. While attending a lantern-slide lecture about the Pilgrim's Way by Colpeper (well-attended since few local girls are willing to go out at night with servicemen for fear of the glueman), Bob, Peter and Alison all come under the spell of Colpeper's words. Alison is already familiar with this part of the country from a pre-war holiday with, her archaeologist fiancé, now missing, presumed dead, in action. Bob also fears that he has lost his girlfriend, who is not answering his letters. Peter is a cynic who studied classical music but opted instead for the money he can earn as a cinema organist. With gangs of children enlisted in unmasking the glueman, all the evidence points to Colpeper. Confronted on the train to Canterbury, he confesses but pleads that he did it for the 'higher good': not only preventing local girls from taking up with GIs while their husbands/boyfriends are away at war, but boosting attendances at his lectures on the national heritage. Peter intends to alert the police - but, once in Canterbury, the trio of pilgrims find the blessings they receive outweigh any desire to bring the glueman to book. Alison's fiancé is found to be alive; Bob's girlfriend has joined the WACs and not been receiving his letters; Peter is given the chance to play the great cathedral organ during a service for the departing troops ...

   A voice-over reads from The Canterbury Tales as the camera pans across a map of the old Pilgrim's Way to the city, then live action takes over as mediaeval falconers appear in the forest. A falcon soars through the air and, in a cut prefiguring Kubrick's bone-into-spaceship as the voice-over wonders what the historical pilgrims would see today, the falcon becomes a Spitfire in a training flight above the Kent countryside and we have jumped six hundred years to 1944. Britain is at war, and Powell-Pressburger are apparently setting out to give an oblique view of 'Why We Fight'. But equally, they seem to be dismissing the war as an occurrence of only momentary import, in order to look at equally enduring yet infinitely more positive components of the human condition, like love and trust and miracles.

   The nominal storyline is the hunt for the glueman. But as Powell-Pressburger tell the audience (visually) that Eric Portman must be the culprit in his first scene, there is not really any suspense. And the scenes detailing the trio's investigation are less about that investigation than about their relationships with each other, their seemingly lost loves (human and spiritual), the countryside and the mystical, magical feelings in the air. Less a storyline, then, more a narrative spine to which the other ideas can be attached, so that watching the film becomes a sort of pilgrimage for the audience. For just as it seems to be going in one direction (after the glueman), it ambles off in another, in quite leisurely fashion, setting up a unique, hypnotic rhythm. The American, Bob Johnson, for instance, gets into conversation with a cherubic old wheelwright about timber, and they realise that their respective knowledge and application of it is identical (hands across the sea). Alison chats with her new employer about London, the harassment of daily life there, the drear uniformity of back-to-back houses. "The only man who ever asked me to marry him wanted us to live in a house like that' says the other woman, and in one line her whole life is beautifully crystallised. These are precisely the kind of non-narrative scenes which are so rare in British/American movies but which are infinitely human and revealing, and establish a sort of 'realism' that is far more real than 'naturalism'. Doubtless, though, the apparent confusions and complexities of the film are one reason why it was a failure in its own time.

   Take the first sequence proper: which other movie has ever introduced three of its four main characters in an extended blackout scene, so that it is impossible to see them clearly, except for brief moments in the glare of torchlight? The dialogue that ensues (establishing who the people are, but also one of the running themes---the American's confusion about English life, language and attitudes) is made doubly confusing by Our inability to see clearly who is talking. Paradoxically (or not), 'seeing' is really what the film is about: seeing beyond surface appearances to the essence of things. Thus Colpeper throws glue at Alison because she is out with two soldiers, but he is both embarrassed and intrigued when he learns that in many ways she is a sort of soul-sister who also has a love for the countryside, if not for the same reasons he does. She spent an idyllic holiday in a caravan with her archaeologist boyfriend on the very same hill which Colpeper loves to visit in order to commune with the past; and those two lovers were the people who found there the old coins which Portman has been eager to study.

   Another major sequence, the lantern-slide lecture, is also conducted in semi-darkness, with only the projector light for illumination. This is the first clear articulation of the film's particular mysticism (here primarily that of the Christian church, of course, in contrast to Black Narcissus and I Know Where I'm Going: whatever the context, this spirituality was a major concern for Powell-Pressburger at the time). Colpeper, framed in semi-silhouette against the circle of light on the screen behind him, talks of his feelings of kinship with the early pilgrims who visited Canterbury to "ask for a blessing or secure penance". His audience, including our trio of investigators, is rapt, and Colpeper - glueman or not - clearly emerges as the film's heart. In turn, the circle of light prefigures the halo effect that strikes Peter Gibbs when, after Colpeper has admitted to being the glueman and explained his motives, the train to Canterbury bursts out of a tunnel and we cut immediately to a shot of the spires of the cathedral. "At your age I didn't believe in anything" says Colpeper, "Now I believe in miracles". Peter, the cynic, scoffs; "Perhaps you're an instrument" murmurs Colpeper; "I'll believe that when I wear a halo round my head" Peter scoffs anew, determined to turn the glueman over to the law-then pow!, the halo effect (which, of course, Peter is unaware of). And indeed, by unexpectedly getting the opportunity to play the cathedral organ and rediscovering the feelings which led him to classical music (entirely non-religious, be it noted), he thereby completes Colpeper's 'penance' by not revealing his activities.

   Floods of light also burst into the derelict caravan stored in war-ravaged Canterbury, when Alison joyously pulls down the moth-eaten curtains at the news that her dead lover is in fact alive, making the scene not only spiritual (a visual metaphor for her 'blessing') but amazingly sensual too, with its implication that the caravan will in time be a place of rapture. Powell's use of light in these ways is reminiscent of Murnau's; and while there is no close stylistic link between the two directors, Powell's attempts to create a 'pure' cinema arguably make him one of the few true heirs to the Mumau tradition. A scene with Alison and Bob Johnson, where they each talk about their lost love the aching emotional beauty understanding that mark many of Murnau's great scenes. And Powell's use of the tracking, craning camera to introduce Colpeper, alone behind his desk in the town hall, is a marvellous visual embodiment of the concept of 'judge', suggesting all the irrationality, imperiousness and (typically) the loneliness implied by that word.

   From this first shot of Colpeper to the scene on the train where his reasons are finally explained, the film's view of him is slowly modified to allow for understanding and even a certain pity. This misogynist (a bachelor, living alone with his mother, entirely self-absorbed and didactic) has had his conceptions (misconceptions) entirely changed by knowing Alison. "Didn't you think to ask the girls to your lectures?" she asks. "No". "Pity" is all she says, but there's an extraordinary sense captured in his silence that he knows she's right, and that he has indeed learned much. And it is entirely fitting that Peter Gibbs, his most earnest opponent, should be the instrument whereby he secures his penance (O.E.D.: "sacrament including contrition, confession, satisfaction and absolution" - all of which are meticulously entwined in the Powell-Pressburger web of complicity). But there is another dimension to Colpeper's character. As John Russell Taylor suggests (Sight and Sound, Autumn 1978), he is "a mischievous and unpredictable force of nature, one of the dark gods ... working at once to disorient and in the long run effectively to reorient people, destroying in order to create". Hence the 'satisfaction' contained in the penance.
(This film was originally reviewed in the M.F.B. No. 126, p. 67.)

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