Saturday, 1 July 2017

A Canterbury Tale

Notes for an introduction to a film club screening.

Powell and Pressburger – an alliterative pairing whose enunciation immediately summons up an aura of magic and enchantment for me. I first came across their films in the 1980s when they were being rediscovered after several decades of neglect and critical disdain. I remember going to see them in the NFT and the repertory cinemas of London (the Scala and the Everyman were particular favourites). I fell in love with them and experienced an indefinable thrill every time I saw them. They were a part of my self-education, my teenage cultural awakening and they have remained a vital part of my life ever since, re-awakening those feelings every time I see them. I feel such an affinity for them that it probably wouldn’t be going too far to say that they are an inherent part of my soul. My English soul.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were, for 17 years between 1939-1956, an inseparable creative partnership, their intuitive understanding of one another leading to a series of films which were collaborations in the most intimate and complete sense. Emeric expressed the close conjunction of their artistic temperaments, saying ‘ he knows what I am going to say even before I say it – maybe even before I have thought it – and that is very rare’. Powell, with typical impishness, described their relationship as being like ‘a marriage without sex’, the qualification an addendum which perhaps didn’t need spelling out. All the films they made for the independent production company they set up in 1942 and called The Archers were credited as being written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Their logo saw a golden arrow joining 8 others on the Technicolor target (or monochrome if it was a black and white film), although it thunked in just outside the bullseye. Powell sent Emeric a copy of a rhyme written by James Agee: ‘The arrow was pure gold/But somehow missed the target./But as all Golden Arrow trippers know/’Tis better to miss Naples than hit Margate’.

There was no creative hierarchy or division, this was a collective act of creation. Michael Powell explained the idea behind this amalgamated credit some years later; ‘We wanted the titles to express the order of importance as we thought it’ he said, ‘so we decided on Written, Produced and Directed. In other words you’ve got to have a bloody good story to start with and it’s got to be well developed and then it’s got to be well produced, you’ve got to find the money and dress it properly, and that sort of thing…and then directing is purely one of the other things, like photography’. Of course they each had their particular role, but wouldn’t exclude the other from influencing their work. Powell would further elaborate in an interview for Variety in 1980: ‘in theory we made the films together; in practice, of course, I’m a director, just as Emeric had a long struggle to establish himself as a writer. So basically our ideas were usually Emeric’s conception as a story and Emeric’s working out in script form, from then we worked together and I would take over the direction, but every decision that was of any importance, including, of course, the editing particularly…was all made by the two of us together’.

Emeric was Hungarian, born in Miskolc in the northeastern part of the country. His father was an estate manager (the Pressburgers came from Pressburg, once the regional capital of Hungary but by this time, as Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia). He had a rural childhood growing up on farms, a pastoral upbringing which would strongly influence his worldview and his writing. This is made manifest in A Canterbury Tale above all else. He was educated in the city of Temesvar. When the maps were redrawn by the Allies in the aftermath of the first world war Temesvar was swallowed up by Romania and became Timisoara. It was the start of Emeric’s stateless roamings through the 20th century, his Hungarian nationality and his Jewish identity making him a target for the unwanted attentions of a succession of oppressive powers. He escaped to Prague before making his way to Germany (always his preferred destination) and eventually to the UFA studios in Berlin. His time there as a screenwriter and editor gave him an education in film-making and production which was to stand him in excellent stead for his later work. The Nazis came to power, however, and it wasn’t long before Jews in the film industry were targeted. 31st March 1933 was Jewish Boycott Day, a purge of the studios which saw a mass exodus of talented artists and engineers. Emeric stayed on in Berlin, reluctant to leave. But a phone call tipping him and impressing upon him the urgency of his immediate departure led him to flee to France with swiftly procured passports. He lived and worked in Paris for a couple of years before sailing over to England in 1935.

Three years later, in 1938, he travelled to Denham studios to start working on a picture for his fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda (soundtrack to be composed by Miklos Rosza, another Hungarian!) called The Spy in Black and was introduced to its brash and sometimes abrasive director, Michael Powell. The quiet Hungarian and the romantically extravagant Englishman almost immediately formed a bond which would last until their deaths. Perhaps even beyond. Powell’s second volume of memoirs, Million-Dollar Movie, describes a meeting with Emeric in his modest country dwelling, Shoemaker’s Cottage (‘a little number that looks as if it had been run up by the Brothers Grimm’), 50 years since their first encounter. They talk companionably about the old times, and about their artistic relationship. Emeric expounds on their philosophy, concluding that they remained always amateurs, dedicated to their vision. It’s only as the conversation reaches its conclusion that Powell reveals that Emeric was, at this point, already dead. It’s typical of the mutual generosity inherent in their partnership that, at the end of his lengthy 2 volume autobiography, he should let his dear friend have the final word.

Michael Powell himself was a Man of Kent (as distinct from a Kentish Man). He grew up in the Kentish Weald and Downland, a landscape of oast houses, hop fields, chestnut woods, meandering rivers, ridgeways and downland meadows. His family was based at Howletts farm near Canterbury then Hoath, even nearer to the city in which he received his early education. Like Emeric, his was a rural upbringing. A Canterbury Tale finds him returning to the landscape of his childhood. During the filming, he stayed at an inn in Fordwich, just a few miles from the old farms he remembered so vividly (as the first volume of his autobiography, A Life In Movies, attests). But despite this, A Canterbury Tale is Emeric’s film. Powell admits as much, and Emeric, always a modest man, said ‘this is the only one of them that is entirely mine’. It’s good to emphasise Emeric’s contribution because it is often eclipsed by the focus on Powell as the ‘auteur’ director (the fault of Martin Scorsese and the Cahiers du Cinema mob). Emeric’s stamp can be seen in the outsider perspective which predominates in this portrait of the Kentish landscape and spirit. In particular, the perspective of John Sweet’s Sgt Bob Johnson from Oregon. He’s perpetually mystified and amused by English ways; by their phones, their obsession with tea, their stoicism, their uncooperative mirrrors, their habit of shaking hands.

Eventually, Emeric became more English than anyone. Anton Walbrook’s extraordinarily moving refugee speech in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is essentially his expression of his own feelings. He found a home in these isles after years of enforced wandering and exile. And he ended up in Shoemaker’s Cottage in Suffolk, a true English country home. But he always remained Hungarian at heart. Many of his closest friends were Hungarian. And he never lost his taste for Hungarian cooking, spiced with plenty of paprika; a taste he shared with his English friend. As Kevin Macdonald writes in his biography of his grandfather Emeric, ‘Michael was enthusiastic about another of Emeric’s great loves. On cold winter evenings in London he was introduced to Hungarian cooking. Pots of goulash, bowls of cucumber salad and flocks of chicken paprika were set before him. But most of all Michael remembered the turkey’. Theo’s (Anton Walbrook’s) speech in Colonel Blimp, talking of his close friendship with Roger Livesey’s Clive Candy, echoed Emeric’s feelings and friendship with Michael Powell. They referred to each other with loving familiarity as ‘old horse’ or ‘Holmes and ‘Watson’ (Emeric, surprisingly, Holmes). Emeric was both supremely English and the eternal outsider. A condition which lent him his unique insight into the national character.

A Canterbury Tale was filmed in 1943, as preparations for D-Day were in full swing. Signs of the war are evident. There is extensive bomb damage evident in the centre of Canterbury. Denham studio sets were substituted for parts of cathedral. The stained glass in the Nave had been removed for the duration to preserve it from potential destruction. These scenes were a triumph for German designer Alfred Junge (who had spent a period of internment on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien), who would later go on to create the Himalayas on Pinewood stagesets for Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. The cathedral bells had also been cossetted away for their own protection. Those are not the real ones used for dissolve shots at beginning and end. They are miniatures, but with real bell ringers ‘miming’ them to assure realistic changes.

Emeric was not allowed into Kent during the shooting even as daily visitor to set. This was the decision of Percy Sillitoe, the chief constable of Kent, who deemed him a risk as a technical ‘illegal alien’ (Hungary was a Nazi ally). He stayed in Powell’s cottage in Bratton Fleming in Devon. The troops seen in Canterbury at end were on their manoeuvres in preparing for D-Day, a piece of historical verisimilitude which gives the film an added frisson in the modern day. Who knows how many of those individuals marching through the pilgrim’s gates made it back. Of course, the landings were over by the time film was released in 1944. This was already history (unthinkable otherwise that such manoeuvres would be revealed).

Emeric said that A Canterbury Tale was the first stage in the Archer’s ‘Crusade against materialism’. In the context of the war and the vision of the world which would be built after its end, he asked ‘who is going to think about the human values, the values that we are fighting for’. Looking back at Canterbury Tales created a sense of continuity, linking the ancestral past with the present, conjoined by the mystical connection with landscape and memory. They were moral tales, blending chilvalry and noble sentiment with bawdy humour. Exactly the sort of thing which would court the approval of J. Arthur Rank, that arch Methodist. Having initially contemplated a period adaption, Micheal and Emeric decided to do a modern version. Emeric posited ‘a tale of 4 modern pilgrims, of the old road that runs to Canterbury, and of the English countryside which is eternal’. This sense of the eternal is central to the mystical quality of the film, the sense that time is insubstantial; that the landscape makes the past and the stories and lives which have become a part of and helped to shape its contours, its woodlands, streams and meadows immanent, particularly along the old ways trod by so many feet and carved by so many cartwheels over the centuries. Colpepper’s speech before his evening lecture makes this explicit. "Well there are more ways than one of getting close to your ancestors. Follow the old road and as you walk, think of them, and the old England. They climbed Chillingbourne Hill, just as you did, they sweated and paused for breath, just as you did today. And when you see the bluebells in the spring and the wild thyme, the broom and the heather, you're only seeing what their eyes saw. Ford the same rivers, the same birds are singing. When you lie flat on your back, and rest, and watch the clouds sailing as I often do, you're so close to those other people, that you can hear the thrumming of the hoofs of their horses, the sound of the wheels on the road, and their laughter, and talk, and the music of the instruments they carried. And when I turn the bend in the road, where they too, saw the towers of Canterbury, I feel I've only to turn my head, to see them on the road behind me."

The opening quote from Chaucer, with pilgrims riding on horseback, also creates a palpable sense of connection. 'Whanne that Aprille with his shoures sote/The droghte of Marche hat perced to the rote.../And small fowles maken melodye,/That slepen al the night with open ye/(So Priketh hem nature in hir corages):/Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages'. The hawk transmogrifying into a spitfire is a bravura piece of visual poetry eliding past and present (and many have noted the parallel with 2001:A Space Odyssey). This is the anti-materialism that Emeric speaks of. But there are also links with the British documentary movement, the poetic realism of Humphrey Jennings in particular (Listen to Britain, Heart of Britain, Words for Battle, A Diary for Timothy, Spare Time). The blend of location shooting with the heightened effects of studio shoots creates this heady blend of the poetic and the real. There is also and interest in observing, in going off and exploring; hence the non-sequential and meandering narrative, like the serpentine Stour we see running across the Kentish plain. This deviation form sequential narrative was, in its own traditional way, very modern. This might go some way towards explaining the lack of understanding by contemporary reviewers, such as the unsympathetic Dilys Powell.

Powell and Pressburger had always fostered a fine repertory company of actors. Powell had wanted to draw upon his stars from Colonel Blimp, Roger Livesey and Deborah Kerr, to take the central roles in A Canterbury Tale. But Livesey simply didn’t understand the part of Colpepper. Like a number of critics, contemporary and otherwise, he found the glueman aspect distasteful. Deborah Kerr had just signed to MGM and was also at the tempestuous (always tempestuous with Micky) end of a relationship with Powell. Thomas Culpepper was played by Eric Portman, who had previously been in the Powell and Pressburger pictures One of Aircraft is Missing and its converse companion, 49th Parallel, in which he was monstrously memorable as the vessel for Nazi doctrine Leiutentant Hirth. The three leads were all giving their first film performances. Michael Powell met Sheila Sim at a party with her new fiancé, Richard Attenborough (who would have a small part in Powell and Pressburger’s timeless masterpiece, A Matter of Life and Death). They were later to marry, and she would eventually become Lady Attenborough. Dennis Price had been found in a theatre production some months before and Powell had kept him in mind ever since. Sgt John Sweet, the gloriously innocent heart of the film, was an American GI whom Powell had spotted in a touring US army production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. He made a big impression on him as the narrator. His simple and unaffected performance feels true and enormously affecting due to its lack of artifice. Also featured is Esmond Knight in a triple role. He intones the opening Chaucerian narration, plays the ‘village idiot’ with his strangely arch, 18th century aspect (a wise fool), and the waxed-moustached, pipe-clenching soldier at Colpepper’s lecture. Michael Powell had wanted him for Portman’s role as Hirth in 49th Parallel. But he had been persuaded by Vernon Sewell to join the navy. His ship The Prince of Wales was hit by the Bismarck, an encounter in which he lost one eye and was blinded in the other. Powell cast him in the film Silver Fleet (an Archers production directed by Sewell) anyway and always included him in later pictures where possible , as here. Knight eventually regained some sight in his remaining eye. But his hugely enjoyable comic turn here is all the more admirable knowing the circumstances under which it was delivered. Also look out for station guard at the start, an immediately recognisable presence even here in his youth. He never really changed. I won’t tell you who it is, but you can always greet him with a saucy ‘oh, hello’.

The film is also blessed by Erwin Hillier’s luminous cinematography. He had a background in the German UFA studio. He started work as camera assistant on Fritz Lang’s M, and may indeed have bumped into Emeric Pressbuger, who also worked at UFA, at some time. They had a shared apprenticeship. The black and white contrasts, shadows and light blending in the mysterious night, have all the hallmarks of German expressionism. A style which would also be transposed, via another German cinematographer, Karl Freund, into the Universal horror style of Frankenstein (and there are definite echoes of horror in A Canterbury Tale – it would have been interesting to see what a Powell and Pressburger/Hammer collaboration would have produced). Michael Powell also noted Hillier’s obsession with cloudscapes, another significant feature of A Canterbury Tale. ‘The only thing he was a bit loony about was clouds in the sky’, he notes in A Life In Movies. ‘He detested a clear sky, and it sometimes seemed to me that he forgot about the story and the actors in order to gratify this passion. “Meekee, Meekee, please wait another few minutes”, he would plead. “There is a little cloud over there and it is coming our way, I’m sure it is”.

Allan Gray’s music perfectly blends in with the sound of bells at the beginning and end. And his angelic choir perfectly expresses the mystery of the landscape, the spirit of place. There is also a social dimension here. The contrast of the city with the countryside. A nascent ecological consciousness is evident, embodied in Colpepper’s favoured reading, Soil and Soul. Colpepper is religious figure with a decidedly ancient aspect. Michael Powell noted of Eric Portman’s Culpepper that he ‘had the face of a medieval ascetic’, which ‘could quite easily have been torn out of a medieval manuscript’. This medieval aspect also plays into the misogyny of the glueman, his historical refusal to acknowledge the place of women in society (although the glue also acts as a metaphor for social cohesion, and for the pouring in of knowledge and learning), This is seen in his refusal to allow women to work on his farm. The film acts as a rebalancing of this divisive vision of the past. Through his observation of women at work, and their lack of fear (none of the ‘victims’ of the glueman whom Alison interviews, all engaged in active and responsible working roles, express anything more than irritation at his activities) he learns as well; as he does through his relationship with Alison.

In the end, all receive their blessings. The entry into Canterbury is transcendent and really quite profoundly moving. Emeric succeeded completely in his crusade against materialism. Even Colpepper, his sins revealed before him, his confession made, receives some sort of exclulpation, although he stands penitently apart from the crowd. We end with the chiming of the bells and a return to Chaucer. Time transcended. The pilgrim’s way remains open. Enter through the gates and find the truth that lies within your heart.