Saturday, 3 April 2010

A Canterbury Tale

I have actually lost track of how many times I have watched this film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger over the years, and I cannot remember when I first did, so I suppose it must rank as one of my favourites, if not the favourite. I could, if required to, recite whole chunks of the script, verbatim, but I never tire of it.

It is set in a fictitious village near Canterbury during WW2 and the plot - if you can believe it - centres around a shadowy figure who prowls the streets at night, looking for young women so that he can throw pots of glue into their hair (Sticky Stuff). It's a lot more innocent than it sounds, I promise you, but from this brief synopsis of the plot, you will understand that it has to be one of the most surreal films to have come out of a British studio. The culprit is sought by a group of young conscripted servicemen (and woman), one of whom is a genuine American G.I. who was roped into playing himself whilst stationed in war-time Britain, and a gloriously bad job he makes of it too. I would not have had it any other way.

The photography is stunning (Powell's usual cameraman was Jack Cardiff, who sadly died a few months ago), and the sets were made by the legendary Alfred Junge - he who made the absolutely miraculous, glass and paint backdrops of the Himalayas for one of Powell's other films, 'Black Narcissus'. When you remember that the 'Himalayas' were recreated in an Elstree parking lot, using nothing more substantial than a 5 foot high, pile of salt, then you realise what a feat this was.

If you have not seen 'A Canturybury Tale', then you must - at some point - have seen 'The Red Shoes', another wonderful 'Archers' production from P & P. Other Archers productions include, 'The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp', 'A Matter of Life and Death', 'I know Where I'm Going' and 'The Edge of the World', but 'A Canterbury Tale' has to be my personal favourite, with 'I know Where I'm Going' a close second.

I discovered recently that it is also Martin Scorsese's favourite film, and this astounded me, considering the sort of films that Scorcese is famous for. Evidently, he helped Powell through his old age, after he had lost all his money and fallen into obscurity, and I love Scorcese for that.

It is a dangerous thing to do - recommending films or books to other people, but if you see a copy of any one of these Powell films on DVD, I think you will not regret watching them, if you have not already seen them. They are pure magic, to use another old cliché.


  1. I just love looking through the lists of bit-part-players in these old British movies. I'm ashamed to say I don't know this film; I shall have to look out for it on Film 4. Miserable Portman always made good films.

  2. There's a few actors in it that went on to the dizzy heights of 'Carry On' films too. John Pertwee plays a station manager. David Niven was in 'A Matter of Life and Death', and Marius Goring too.