Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Canterbury Tale on Criterion

By Steve Evans

This quiet film from 1944 deals in themes of penance, redemption, and salvation.

Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger create a bucolic portrait of the English countryside during wartime as divine intervention brings blessings on four troubled souls.

A bit of plot…
London girl Alison Smith (Sheila Sim, West of Zanzibar), an American GI (John Sweet, who was an actual U.S. soldier), and a British officer (Dennis Price, The Magic Christian) meet on a train en route to Canterbury, where miracles allegedly come to those who make the pilgrimage. During a stopover at a small town in Kent, they learn from the local constabulatory that the community lives in fear of the mysterious Glue Man, a nocturnal rogue who pours glue on the hair of young women who date American soldiers. When Alison is doused by the Glue Man, the three new friends vow to track him down.

Suspicion begins to fall on town magistrate Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman, The Colditz Story). An obvious eccentric, Colpeper has an abiding love of the land and especially the rich history of Canterbury, a place where he claims salvation awaits the righteous.

Historical context
Powell and Pressburger conceived their three protagonists as modern-day variations of Chaucer's pilgrims to Canterbury, then threw all manner of peculiar situations into this deceptively simple tale. Like Chaucer's omniscient narrator, Powell and Pressburger treat some of their pilgrims with detached irony, while the motivations of others are deliberately left ambiguous. This is less a criticism than an observation.

Exquisite chiaroscuro cinematography in dappled shades of black and white complements the gentle themes of A Canterbury Tale. One reading of the film reveals a deeply spiritual story in which characters uprooted by war find a quantum of solace and comfort in the legendary town of Canterbury, where the bells peal inspiring notes in the town's magnificent cathedral. Another layer of meaning can be seen in the wartime message that Powell and Pressburger were trying to convey: This is a propaganda film with the goal of convincing rambunctious American soldiers and the wary British who hosted them to work cooperatively for the sake of a greater good — defeating an unspeakable evil in Nazi Germany. At the time of the film’s production, U.S. troops were massing in England in preparation for the mammoth D-Day assault on French beaches the following year, when the picture was released.

Despite the wartime setting, the film is delicate as a butterfly in flight, with languid, fluid shots of pastoral landscapes and unexpectedly whimsical interludes, such as a solider chancing upon two friendly gangs of boys staging a mock war on a river. These pleasing moments contrast unnervingly with the subtly obscene behavior of the Glue Man, whose apparent sexual repression takes form in nighttime attacks on girls (he throws what he calls his “sticky stuff” into their hair as a metaphorical act borne on sublimated rage, an anger triggered by his perception of their promiscuous behavior).

Powell’s reputation as a filmmaker notwithstanding, the director did have a perverse streak: on display in A Canterbury Tale, seen in the masochism of The Red Shoes, and later given full flower in the controversial Peeping Tom, which nearly ruined his career.

Technically, from the perspective of sheer craft, A Canterbury Tale is a masterpiece. The picture features several startling transitional shots, one of which, a jump cut barely four minutes into the film, is as awe inspiring as Kubrick's celebrated jump cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Early Man throws his bone-weapon heavenward. Famously, the spinning femur cuts abruptly to an orbiting spacecraft (a weapons platform) thousands of years later. Watching A Canterbury Tale, it is almost impossible to conceive that Kubrick was not influenced by the artistry of this picture.

The rousing climax is an emotional experience, joyous and yet curiously bittersweet. Unfortunately, when the film was deemed a failure on initial release in Britain, Powell hastily tacked on a coda for American audiences to create a much more literal ending. It doesn't work. Fortunately, this Criterion edition presents the film as originally conceived by Powell and Pressburger. The alternate American ending can be viewed as part of the supplements on this two-disc set.

Other extras include an insightful, feature-length commentary track by film historian Ian Christie, a new video interview with actress Sheila Sim, who turns 87 this year, plus the short documentary A Pilgrim's Return, detailing actor John Sweet’s 2001 return to Canterbury. The second disc also features a new documentary, A Canterbury Trail, by David Thompson, "Listen to Britain," which is a 2001 video inspired by the film and created by artist Victor Burgin, and the full 1942 documentary Listen to Britain directed by Humphrey Jennings.

Exercise patience. The film meanders along several plotlines and initially seems to follow no clear course.

Here is an enchanting, mystical, and uplifting film experience, offering a rich counterpoint to other pictures of the World War II era. Criterion delivers a superlative package of supplements to give context and a richer appreciation of this significant British film.

Like Chaucer’s writings from which this film is liberally adapted, A Canterbury Tale may seem frozen in time, yet the picture rewards the careful viewer.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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