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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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Submitted by Nicky Smith
Powell's heartland
By: Richard Combs
The Listener 3rd October 1985

The recent stir of interest in Michael Powell might suggest a director who has languished in neglect, whose masterpices are only just coming to light (as in the re-release of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) and who is about to be admitted to the pantheon of the British cinema only on the occasion of his 80th birthday. But Powell has not only been a fixture of that cinema for a considerable time (his career began some 60 years ago), but at various times has been a force to be reckoned with- someone who aroused expectations to the same degree as Hitchcock. The problem with Powell - or with Powell-Pressburger, the unusual collaborative unti he formed with Hungarian writer Emeric Pressburger, with whom he always split the credit for writing, producing and directing - has not been the neglect of his films so much as the way they have been perceived.

Powell has never been assimilated. His films have always stood apart from the rest of British cinema -fantastic, extreme, even perverse and disturbing. His prominence has never been in doubt so much as the very nature and purpose of his films. In their time, they were approached with high expectations mingled with apprehension, which finally exploded in the scandal of Peeping Tom, a black fable about a cineaste with a yen to film his pretty, young subjects unto death. The critical revulsion this provoked virtually put an end to Powell as an English film-maker (it was released in 1960, the same year as Psycho, another much maligned horror film, which similarly took revenge on its detractors by becoming a classic). Powell has subsequently worked abroad, which is perhaps the saddest irony of his career, since so many of his films are deeply involved with England and Englishness, reinventing and glorifying it in ways which the English have often not found easy to accept.

A case in point is A Canterbury Tale (1944 Saturday BBC2 3.20-5.20pm). This begins by invoking Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, with a map showing the Pilgrim's Way, and a brief sequence with a group of medieval falconers. It then jumps forwards to the present, the war. Spitfires rather than hunting birds in the skies over England, and the narrator wondering if there is any connection between the England of then and now. The film becomes an exploration of that connection, of spiritual rather than historical unity, of the mystical qualities of place and landscape, in fact which make A Canterbury Tale almost unique as a cinematic picture of England (close, perhaps, to some of John Fowles's rhapsodies of place in A French Lieutenant's Woman and Daniel Martin.

The other remarkable aspect of A Canterbury Tale is that although its immediate context is the war -and it's a context that supplies the need behind its quest for the spirit of England- there is little here that directly relates to the war. It's the hazards of the time that bring Powell and Pressburger's contemporary group of pilgrims together: a British soldier (Dennis Price) on his way back to camp; an American GI (John Sweet) heading for Canterbury; and a London salesgirl (Sheila Sim) about to begin a new career as a landgirl. It's also a circumstance of war - a blackout- that causes them to get off the train together at a small village station, and to become involved in the exploits of the most musterious manifestation of place-a phantom of the night-time streets known as the Glueman, because of his habit of emptying glue in the hair of girls he finds fraternising with the Gis.

But here the war, as it were, ends. The rest of the film follows the spiritual fortunes of the three latterday 'pilfrims', each of whom is in mourning for something they may have lost: sweethearts in the case of the landgirl and the GI, a vocation in the case of the British soldier. The local disturbance over The Glueman, and everyone's efforts to unmask him, loosley bind these stories together and lend an almost mystery air to the film. But it soon becomes clear that The Glueman is not so much a psychotic villain as another manifestation of the spirit of unity, of the kind of completeness for which the other three are searching in their own ways. The motive for his glue-dropping proves not to be anti-Americanism, or sexual paranoia, but a disinterested (if peculiarly expressed passion for local history. His peversity was certainly picked up -and worried over- by reviewers at the time, hinitng at the problems to come over Peeping Tom. But it's also one of the defining features of Powell-Pressburger's cinema - of the strange, zigzagging, irrational and unlikely route that they take to the heartland of national feeling -that the guiding light of the their Canterbury Tale is The Glueman.

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