Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My alternative canon #1: A Canterbury Tale

with 3 comments

Sheila Sim and Eric Portman in A Canterbury Tale

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different.

I’ve frequently said that The Red Shoes is my favorite movie of all time, but it isn’t even the most remarkable film directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The Red Shoes succeeds in large part by following through on its promises: it takes place in a fascinating world and tells a story of high melodrama, with an obvious determination to deliver as much color and atmosphere to the audience as possible, and its brilliance emerges from how consistently it lives up to its own impossible standards. A Canterbury Tale, which came out five years earlier, is in many respects more astonishing, because it doesn’t seem to have any conventional ambitions at all. It’s a deliberately modest film with a story so inconsequential that it verges on a commentary on the arbitrariness of all narrative: three young travelers, stranded at a small village near Canterbury during World War II, attempt to solve the mystery of “the glue man,” an unseen figure who throws glue at the hair of local women to discourage them from going out at night—and that, incredibly, is it. When the glue man’s identity is revealed, it’s handled so casually that the moment is easy to miss, and not even the protagonists themselves seem all that interested in the plot, which occupies about ten minutes of a film that runs over two hours in its original cut. And the fact that the movie itself was openly conceived as a light propaganda picture doesn’t seem to work in its favor.

Yet this is one of the most beautiful movies ever made, a languid series of funny, moving, and evocative set pieces that reminded me, when I first saw it, of Wong Kar-Wai magically set loose in wartime Britain. There are the usual flourishes of cinematic playfulness from Powell and Pressburger—including a cut from a medieval falcon to a modern warplane that anticipates Kubrick in 2001—but the tone is atypically relaxed and gentle, with even less plot than in its spiritual sequel I Know Where I’m Going! Despite the title, it doesn’t have much to do with Chaucer, except that the lead characters are all pilgrims who have been damaged in different ways and are healed by a journey to Canterbury. (Years later, I stayed at a tiny hotel within sight of the cathedral, where I verified that the movie was on sale at its gift shop.) It’s nostalgic and vaguely conservative, but it also looks ahead to the New Wave with its visual zest, greediness for location detail, and willingness to take happy digressions. The cast includes the lovely ingenue Sheila Sim, who later married Richard Attenborough, and Eric Portman as Colpeper, the local magistrate, who, in a typically perverse touch from the Archers, is both their virtuous embodiment of high Tory ideals and kind of a creepy weirdo. Sim died earlier this year, but when she looks up at the clouds in the tall grass with Portman, she lives forever in my heart—along with the film itself, which keeps one foot in the past while somehow managing to seem one step ahead of every movie that came after it.

3 Responses

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  1. Huh. An American fan of the Archers. You’re all right.

    The Powell/Pressburger film that I think doesn’t get anywhere like enough love is THE SMALL BACK ROOM from 1949. (aka HOUR OF GLORY in its first stateside release). Ever seen that one?

    If you haven’t, do. Done right after THE RED SHOES and a completely different kind of film, based on the rather good novel of the same name by the now-mostly-forgotten Nigel Balchin. Here’s the Rotten Tomatoes description —

    And here’s Clive James on Balchin —

    Part of the interest is that the novel and the film are the first treatment of the back-room ‘boffin’ — I think Balchin’s novel is the first recorded use of the word according to the scholars — within the historical context of the bombing of the UK during WWII.

    Indeed, if you’re an SF reader, THE SMALL BACK ROOM is particularly interesting because it’s another take on the Competent Man/Engineer hero beloved of Heinleinian/Campbellian SF, and a rather more adult one at that — it bears rather more resemblance to the troubled engineer/scientist protagonists in 1950s SF novels like Algis Budrys’s WHO? and in Nevil Shute’s books like NO HIGHWAY.

    Also, there’s a great bomb disposal scene that goes on for twenty-odd minutes at the film’s end.

    Mark Pontin

    June 7, 2016 at 1:13 am

  2. The Small Back Room is one of my favorites! I think it’s their last unambiguously great movie together, with apologies to fans of The Tales of Hoffmann. And I’ve always been intrigued by the novel as well: I used to own a copy, but it disappeared during one of my moves. I’ll have to track it down again.


    June 7, 2016 at 3:30 pm

  3. Great review. Black Narcissus, The Spy In Black, I Know Where I’m Going and The Red Shoes are my favourites.


    February 26, 2017 at 12:39 pm

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