Saturday, October 4, 2014

A Catnerbury Tale

There are some movies where you probably shouldn't trust the one-sentence blurb that the TV listings sites use to describe what it's about. An excellent example of this -- both because the synopsis doesn't capture the essence of the movie well at all and because the movie turns out to be extremely good -- is A Canterbury Tale, which is on TCM tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM.

The movie starts off with a few scenes of bucolic England, set against the words of Georrfey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, before shifting to the present day, that being 1943/4. That date of course implies that there's a war on, and that war figures heavily in the action of this movie. Real-life American army sergeant John Sweet plays Bob Johnson, a US GI on a couple days' leave who is trying to get to Canterbury to see one of his friends as well as photograph the cathedral. He's taking the train at night to get to Canterbury, but because of the war on, there are blackout conditions. So when Bob hears "Canterbury" mentioned, he gets off thinking he's arrived, but is in fact a stop early because they were announcing future stops. So he's in the middle of some small town somehere in the middle of south-east England. At least he's not alone, as having gotten off the train as well is the young, lovely Alison Smith (Sheila Sam, the widow of Richard Attenborough), who is here as part of the labor program to send people to work with the farmers. Also there is the young Londoner Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), so the three of them start to look for a place to spend the night.

The three are waylaid, however, by a surprising event. Not only does some mystery person accost them; that mystery person dumps glue in Alison's hair! So the three get to the local inn, where Alison can have her hair washed, these being the days where staying in to wash one's hair was actually a real thing, especially with the war on. There, the three newcomers also learn that Alison isn't the first woman who's suffered the indignity of having glue dumped on her. So who the heck would do such a thing? And why? It's this that more or less forms the one-sentence blurb you'd see in the TCM schedule or on your box guide. And yet, the investigation into who is assaulting women with glue is really not what the movie is about at all.

No; A Canterbury Tale is partly about life in this rural English town, and partly about the four main characters and the journey they take both within the town and as they try to make their way to Canterbury. Canterbury has long been a pilgrimage town as the seat of Christianity in England; indeed, Chaucer's original story was about a group of pilgrims. As the story goes along and especially once we get to the end, the main characters all wind up having taken a sort of metaphorical pilgrimage. Bob, the American, is from a farming family out in Oregon, and he's somewhat disappointed that his girlfriend back in the States has stopped responding to his letters. Alison is also alone, but that's because her boyfriend has gone missing in action. She's trying to get to Canterbury because that's where her trailer is; she's more or less hoped to sit out the war by going camping in the middle of nowhere. As for Peter, he's been working in London as the organist at a movie house, but he really wants to play a magnificent church organ. The fourth main character is the one the focus on as the likeliest candidate for having dumped the glue on the women's heads: local air-raid warden and prominent lawyer Colpeper (Eric Portman). There's not much mystery over whether he did it, but why?

It sounds as though there's not much going on in this movie, and as you watch it, you get the distinct impression that there's not much going on other than a weekend in a rural English backwater that's simply had the dubious honor of being the locale for a strange crime. But as we get to know the characters and the life of tht little town where they've all wound up, we find that there's so much more going on under the surface as these people make their way to Canterbury that will stick with you long after the movie is done. Whether it be Bob playing iwth the children on a late summer afternoon as he enlists them in his scheme to find the guilty party, or the resolutions to Alison's and Peter's stories, the little things going on wind up being very affecting. John Sweet had no real acting experience prior to this movie, and would not make another movie, but he's fine as the American. The British actors all turn in good performances too, setting up a depiction of small-town life that was utterly destroyed by the war. Michael Powell does a good job as always with the directoin, but as so often happens with his films, it's more the story than the direction that winds up staying with you.

A Canterbury Tale is a modest, unassuming movie, but one that is really rewarding and well worth a viewing.

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