Thursday, April 21, 2011

My Quest to See the 1000 Greatest: A Canterbury Tale (1944)

A Canterbury Tale is #581 in  
My Quest to watch the 1000 Greatest Films

Screened 02/09/11 on Criterion DVD at Midtown Cinema

Ranked #381 on TSPDT

*this is one in a series of catch-up reviews in my aforementioned quest (which should explain the rather old screening date above).

There is a certain something about the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.  Of course they are visually stunning.  The look and feel of their films are beyond reproach.  Many filmmakers would give anything to make films like them.  But there is more than just this obvious visual and audible style.  The films this duo made together - especially during that perfect six-movie streak that ran for Colonel Blimp to The Red Shoes - have a certain, for lack of a better term, otherworldly charm about them.  It is as if these films are of a magical time and place all their own.  The windy snow-capped Shangri-la-like terrain of Black Narcissus; the tragic fantasy and that final dance of The Red Shoes; the dreamlike quality of the two lovers in A Matter of Life and Death.  And A Canterbury Tale, though sadly lesser known among the duo's oeuvre, is no different.

Seeming to be out of time and out of place (even though set then-contemporarily in the midst of WWII) A Canterbury Tale (loosely based, of course, upon Chaucer's epic poem) tells the story of three travelers on their way to the titular sacred place, whom all get tangled up in a strange mystery just one town over.   The three aforementioned travelers are Allison, a young "Land Girl" (part of the Women's Land Army - civilian girls who helped out with the war effort - for those non-Anglophiles out there) played by the lovely girl-next-door type Sheila Sim, British Sergeant Peter Gibbs, played by up-and-commer (and later down-and-outer) Dennis Price and American Sergeant Bob Johnson, played by real life Sergeant John Sweet.  These three get entangled in a strange affair wherein a mystery man is running about the village putting glue in young girl's hair.

This odd mystery (which isn't really a mystery since it is pretty obvious who the culprit is from the beginning) is really only a sidebar to the ideas of God and time and space and love and all those other deeply felt philosophical comings-and-goings in life.  It is in these ideas that Powell & Pressburger fashion a movie that is probably even more otherworldly than the afterlife parable A Matter of Life and Death.  As Powell's camera (courtesy of cinematographer Erwin Hillier, most notable for being DP on Fritz Lang's M) moves so effortlessly through the English countryside, we are transported to another world in both mood and feeling.  The Archers' films were (to coin a rather tired, but completely appropriate term) magical, and A Canterbury Tale, though perhaps not as vibrant as Colonel Blimp, nor as seductive as Black Narcissus, nor as downright succulent as The Red Shoes, shows these filmmakers in top magical form.  I personally was transfixed as I watched this film unfold on the big screen in front of me.

The film would go on to have a strange life of its own then.  Not a success at the box office (a first for the Archers) Powell was made to re-edit the film for post-war US release, shortening it by twenty minutes and tacking on bookends which featured Kim Hunter as Sgt. Johnson's girl back home (Hunter would incidentally get the female lead in the next Powell/Pressburger project, A Matter of Life and Death).  The film was eventually restored to its original and proper form (no offense to the lovely and talented Miss Hunter) by the British Film Institute, in the 1970's.  Still often overlooked when considering the entire Powell/Pressburger oeuvre, A Canterbury Tale is considered a classic today.  Personally it is my third favourite film of the Archers - following The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

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