Written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, A Canterbury Tale is the story of three different visitors who arrive in a small English town that is plagued by an incident as they decide to go after the man who caused this incident. The film is about the relationship between British and American personnel during World War II as they band together to solve a bizarre crime. Starring Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price, Sgt. John Sweet, and Esmond Knight. A Canterbury Tale is an extraordinarily rich film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
The film is about a trio of visitors who arrive in a town near Canterbury where they learn about a mysterious man who pours glue onto women’s heads where the three go on a search to find out who did this. With two of them being Army sergeants as one of them is an American and the third person of the party is a London woman seeking to work for a prominent local figure in Mr. Colpeper (Eric Portman). The trio suspect Mr. Colpeper as they do a lot of guesswork with the help of various locals as they also make some discoveries about the small town they’re in which relates to the pilgrimage to Canterbury that happened 600 years ago. There, the three deal with their own desires in life as they eventually make their arrival to Canterbury in a pilgrimage of their own.
The screenplay by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is a bit of a genre-bending film where it is a mystery but also a drama of sorts as it relates to these three different people. A British Sergeant in Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), an American army Sergeant in Bob Johnson (John Sweet), and a London woman going to Canterbury to retrieve a caravan named Alison Smith (Sheila Sim). Each person have their own reasons to go to Canterbury yet they come together in a series of circumstances as well as teaming up to solve the mystery over the man who pours glue onto women’s heads. During this investigation in a small town, all three wander around the land they’re in as they all have a different reaction to it. The script gives the three characters a chance to find themselves in the town as they eventually arrive to Canterbury as they all go through some kind of transformation.
The direction of Powell and Pressburger is very engaging not just in the way they set up the film but also make similarities to the original pilgrimage to Canterbury to the journey Gibbs, Johnson, and Smith take part in. Notably as the film starts with a scene of pilgrims making their way towards Canterbury and then create this cut of a hawk flying in the air to a shot of a plane flying above. Things are much different in the scenes set in the present where it’s a world that isn’t ravaged by war. Though the people in this small town are aware of what is going on, they’re more concerned about what’s happening to them locally.
The direction is often filled with a series of stylish shots such as establishing location shots, close-ups, and a lot of group shots to present a world that is this mix between old and new. While the third act is about who is the culprit behind these incidents and why, it is then followed by the three main characters each going into their own individual journey to see what awaits for them in Canterbury as it’s ending plays into what they receive in the end. Overall, Powell and Pressburger create an enchanting yet captivating film about a group of people coming together to discover a world that is different from their environment.
Cinematographer Erwin Hiller does excellent work with the film‘s black-and-white photography from the use of very little lighting schemes to the scenes at night in its exterior settings to the array of shades and such in some of the film‘s interior scenes. Editor and sound supervisor John Seabourne Jr. does wonderful work with the film‘s stylized editing with its use of rhythmic cuts and some stylized transitions in wipes and dissolves while using the sound to maintain a low-key atmosphere in some scenes. Production designer Alfred Junge does nice work with the film‘s set pieces for the scenes in the small town from the inn the characters stay in to the office of Mr. Colpeper. The film’s music by Allan Gray is brilliant for its sweeping orchestral score to play out some of the bombast of the journey as well as more serene moments for its drama.
The film’s cast is amazing as it features some noteworthy small roles from Leonard Smith, James Tamsitt, and David Todd as a trio of boys who pretend to be soldiers as they befriend Gibbs and Johnson while Esmond Knight is excellent in a trio of roles such as the film’s narrator in the opening sequence, a village idiot, and as a soldier Johnson befriends during a town meeting. Eric Portman is wonderful as the mysterious Thomas Colpeper as a man who is revered by the locals while being gracious towards the visitors despite being ambiguous about where he goes.
John Sweet is terrific as the American Sergeant Bob Johnson as a man who arrives to the small town by accident only to be wowed by its beauty and its people as he deals with not having contact with a lady friend for seven weeks. Dennis Price is superb as Sergeant Peter Gibbs as a man who hasn’t been to the countryside while dealing with his own issues as a man in the army as he craves to go back to his old job. Finally, there’s Sheila Sim as Alison Smith who is a woman helping out locals while trying to uncover the mystery as she is also dealing with her own issues with the war.
A Canterbury Tale is a splendid film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Armed with a great cast and engaging themes about pilgrimage and seeking one’s desire for a life outside of war. It’s a film that is definitely one of Powell and Pressburger’s finer films as well as one that is very accessible in the way it allows characters to find themselves. In the end, A Canterbury Tale is a remarkable film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Powell/Pressburger Films: The Spy is Black - (The Lion Has Wings) - Contraband - (An Airman’s Letter to His Mother) - 49th Parallel - One of Our Aircraft is Missing - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - (The Volunteer) - I Know Where I’m Going - A Matter of Life and Death - Black Narcissus - The Red Shoes - The Small Black Room - (Gone to Earth) - The Tales of Hoffmann - (Oh… Rosalinda!!!) - (The Battle of the River Plate) - Ill Met by Moonlight - Peeping Tom - (They’re a Weird Mob) - (Age of Consent) - (The Boy Who Turned Yellow)
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