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A 'Land Girl', an American GI, and a British soldier find themselves together in a small Kent town on the road to Canterbury. The town is being plagued by a mysterious "glue-man", who pours glue on the hair of girls dating soldiers after dark. The three attempt to track him down, and begin to have suspicions of the local magistrate, an eccentric figure with a strange, mystical vision of the history of England in general and Canterbury in particular. Written by
David Levene <D.S.Levene@durham.ac.uk>
When Stanley Kubrick cut from a flying bone to a spaceship in 2001: A Space Oddysey it would be widely credited as the best cut in cinema history. What isn't so well known is that it is an almost direct steal from this much earlier Powell and Pressburger picture. Granted, in A Canterbury Tale the cut does not take in the whole sweep of human history it cuts from a medieval hunter's hawk to a Second World War fighter plane but in my opinion it achieves the same affect much more smoothly than in the later film.
A Canterbury Tale cannot easily be slotted into one genre. It is unusual in that it was a contemporary set film made during the war, but it does not have a war theme it records normal life during wartime. It's ironic perhaps that a section in which two gangs of boys play act a battle with toy guns is staged exactly like a proper action scene with rousing musical underscoring. There is a rather bizarre central storyline concerning the hunt for a man who pours glue over the heads of women who date soldiers, but this is just a red herring. The real story is about the journey of self-discovery undertaken by the central characters a land girl, a GI, a tank commander and a village historian and the people they meet along the way.
In some ways the film can also be regarded as a look at English ways of life (from the point of view of a foreigner screenwriter Pressburger was Hungarian). Dozens of bit part characters each uniquely interesting and many of them funny walk on and off. It shows quirkiness, resilience, a sense of history, differences and similarities between city people and country folk, and also the differences and similarities between the English residents and US soldiers. As such it can be considered a kind of propaganda piece, albeit a very unconventional one.
The best acting performances in the film also belong to the actors in smaller parts. Particularly memorable is Esmond Knight in duel roles as a deadpan cockney soldier and a stuttering village idiot. As for the lead roles, (non-professional) John Sweet is good as the good natured American soldier Bob Johnson, but I find leading lady Sheila Sim's ultra posh voice a little grating.
Despite what is apparently a fairly mundane setting, there is no shortage of spectacular images in A Canterbury Tale. Creating such images was Powell's greatest strength. There is the opening close-up of the Canterbury cathedral bells which pans to a shot of the city through a fleur-de-lis shaped aperture. There is the shot of Culpepper silhouetted against a spotlight as he delivers his lecture. Throughout the cinematography is excellent, with lots of light and shadow making the most of the black and white photography.
A Canterbury Tale has to be one of the most unique and difficult to describe pictures of its era, but it is a good one. It is endlessly entertaining and often heartwarming. It is brilliantly directed I'd say the best of Michael Powell's monochrome pictures. Well worth seeking out, especially if you've already seen and enjoyed a few Powell and Pressburger flicks.
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