Shelia Sim and Eric Portman in A Canterbury Tale (1944)
There's something odd about the town of Chillingbourne. The film beings with a narrator reciting the prologue to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, which details the outset of pilgrimage to Canterbury. Brief footage reveals the start of their travels and one of the pilgrims releases a bird into the air. We match cut to England in 1943 - the middle of WWII. "But though so little has changed since Chaucer's day, Another kind of pilgrim walks the way" the narrator reads, as a tank bursts into the frame, flattening the tall grass and hedgerows. The pilgrims now are 'Land Girl' Alison Smith (Shelia Sim), American Sergeant Bob Johnson (John Sweet) and British Sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price). They all depart the train to Canterbury at Chillingbourne in the dead of night. The odd thing about town is a mysterious glue-man, an unknown criminal who attacks girls by putting glue in their hair. Alison is the twelfth victim, and along with Bob and Peter she tracks her assailant to the town hall, where she meets suspicious magistrate Mr Colpeper (Eric Portman)...
Although it's rightfully recognised as a classic, A Canterbury Tale is perhaps the least celebrated of Powell & Pressburger's wartime period films. It's often remembered for what it was (a critical and commercial failure) than what it actually is. The film didn't see a US release until 1949, but even then it wasn't the proper version - Powell was ordered to re-edit the film, cutting 20 minutes of footage, and adding narration and a girlfriend for the Johnson character, played by Kim Hunter. Thankfully the BFI restored the film during the 1970s and it's now available, complete and restored, here and in the US (Criterion). So now we can see the film for what it is - which is a smart mystery, and a neo-romantic tale of British heritage, and cultural difference. This is perhaps Powell & Pressburger's most observational film; epic in allegory and subtle in emotion, it takes leave from from the notion of German Expressionism by using mise-en-scène to inform mood and feeling. It's not so strict to Weimar values in its execution, but the first glue-man attack and our introduction to Colpeper definitely use concepts of light and shadow to inform atmosphere and character, in much the same way as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920) does. The camera is much more static, the narrative intentionally baggy - rather than speeding us through a story Powell & Pressburger take some time to allow their audience to soak up Chillingbourne and its people, and pass judgment on their character. One of the most enjoyable things about the film is the way in which the central trio compose themselves in the town, and adjust to the lifestyle. This is especially true of Bob, who struggles with, but eventually warms to, the British countryside. One scene sees him recruiting a ragtag group of young boys, playing war-games which perhaps subtly implies just how close to home the war really was. He tells the boys that he will give them a football if he helps with their investigation, by stealing the logbook from the Grocer (which he calls the "drugstore"). There are other misunderstandings too, both good and bad - such as the threatening of his Sergeant status for having his stripes upside down, and the respect earned by Mr Horton for his knowledge of woodworking. Watching Bob discover British tradition and values is the most enjoyable part of the film, and Powell & Pressburger do a fine job of expressing how a divide between cultures can soon become a union through something as simple as friendship.
The success of that notion also relies on the performances of the cast, however - and Sim, Sweet and Price are all excellent in their roles. Sweet, a real-life Sergeant, is especially good - charming with a boyish wonder. The photography is by Erwin Hillier, who began his career with the German Expressionists - first Murnau, whom he was forced to stop working with by his father, a homophobic. Murnau introduced Hillier to Fritz Lang, who employed him as assistant cameraman on M (1931). A lot of Hillier's photography has stylistic roots in his Weimar beginnings, but he always employs light and dark more specifically in tune with the material he's working on - A Canterbury Tale, shot in beautiful black and white, has sublime tonal shifting between shadowy mystery and the optimism of summer (the film takes place in August). A beautiful scene sees Alison and Mr Colpeper bumping into each other on a hilly trek (pictured above). At first the camera is in a wide shot, taking in not just the rolling hills and cloudy skies, but also Canterbury in the distance. Then when the two begin talking the camera becomes more intimate and in an almost low-angle shot observes the grass swaying in the breeze. The conversation that takes place here - uncovering the glue-man - is integral to the plot, but you could just as easily not care. The scenery is so beautiful, the photography and camerawork so masterful. In terms of consistency of tone and atmosphere, this is perhaps the best Powell & Pressburger feature I've seen yet.
If you choose to read all the metaphors and allegory of A Canterbury Tale then there is something else of importance in this scene - the moment where Alison hears the ghostly sounds of pilgrims traveling by horse to Canterbury. It occurs upon our first sight of the Cathedral, over the Chillingbourne hills. It's the allegory that put audiences off though, back in 1944/49, and watching the film as a comedic mystery, charting the discovery of British countryside by a foreigner, and the friendship that emerges there, is probably the more satisfying prospect. Whichever way you look at it, the film has a romantic optimism that's hard to beat - especially in the scene of Peter playing the Cathedral organ - and it's another masterpiece from two of the best filmmakers of all time.