Canterbury Tale, A (1944)

Canterbury Tale, A (1944), written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

At the train station of the last stop before Canterbury, on a blacked-out night of WW2, we meet three new arrivals: a British sergeant joining his unit, a Land Girl who is going to work on a farm, and an American sergeant headed for the cathedral town who got off at the wrong stop. He is the first Yank soldier the village has seen.

While they are talking a mysterious figure in disguise squirts hot sticky fluid in the woman's hair and runs off.

(Folks, I don't make these films, I just review them...)

Turns out this is a known night prowler called the "Glue Man". It's hell getting the glue out and Alison isn't putting up with it. She plays detective, interviews other women and convinces the two sergeants to help her identify the culprit. Bob, the Yank, even employs the village children as Holmes-like "irregulars".

All three of our principle characters have secret sorrows. In the last act we get to the cathedral and each receives a blessing, the fulfillment of their hearts' desires. A fourth character finds forgiveness, another reason for the pilgrimage.

The background of the detective story is the beautiful Kent landscape and rural England at war, with barrage balloons tethered over the distant cathedral town. Life in the village goes on. It is near the Old Road, the Pilgrim's Way to Canterbury, actually in use since prehistoric times. (I once had Hillaire Belloc's The Old Road where he traces each step of the route, complete with maps).

We have a sense of deep layers of history here. Perhaps this comforts us: the war is only a passing, transient thing.

Much as the directors love the countryside, they also seem fascinated by those little armored scout vehicles charging across the meadows; we also see them in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943).

Eric Portman as the town magistrate is the only big name actor in the cast. Most others are unknowns or locals. I recognized wheelwright Edward Rigby from Hitchcock's Young and Innocent (1937) where he was Old Will the china mender.

Sheila Sim is our female lead. She married Richard Attenborough in 1945 and they remained wed for 69 years, until his death.

The Yank is played by actual US Army Sergeant John Sweet, a total amateur selected by the directors, a casting choice that reminds me of Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

His performance is, at first, painful. He has a funny voice like a radio character actor. His lines are cringe-worthy, written to be American-sounding and way too aw-shucks, goll-darned.

And yet... we grow to like him very much. His folksy charm endears him to the villagers and he is good-hearted, making his performance easier to take.

Photographed by Erwin Hillier -- The Dam Busters (1955), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), Sands of the Kalahari (1965), School for Scoundrels (1960), The Valley of Gwangi (1969).

Score by Allan Gray -- The African Queen (1951), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

Criterion DVD.