Criterion Sunday 376: 49th Parallel (1941)

I do like a Powell and Pressburger film (here dividing their credited duties between director and screenwriter respectively), and ostensibly this is very much a wartime propaganda effort. That said, it does have its slyly subversive side, given that its protagonists are the escaped Nazis from a sunken U-boat (led by Eric Portman and Raymond Lovell) as they make their way across Canada towards the US border where they believe they will be met with freedom (thanks to America’s neutral position at this time). Not all the Nazis are bad guys, meaning there’s a bit of shading with the characterisation, but the core of the group are of course beyond salvation, hectoring the Hutterites they meet (led by Anton Walbrook) into supporting them, and burning books and stamping on modern art to make it clear where our sympathies should lie. That said, the predominance of the British accent meant it was some time before I even figured out who was supposed to playing the Germans; the alternative to that is provided by this very film also, though, and perhaps the plummy British accent for the Germans is preferable to whatever Laurence Olivier is doing with his voice as a French-Canadian trapper (claims to his acting greatness surely not based on this role).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Powell; Writer Emeric Pressburger; Cinematographer Frederick Young; Starring Eric Portman, Raymond Lovell, Laurence Olivier, Anton Walbrook, Leslie Howard; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 1 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 341: A Canterbury Tale (1944)

I can see from reading others’ reviews that there are a lot of big fans of this Powell and Pressburger film, made in black-and-white and telling a wartime story of three people (pilgrims if you will) in Kent, a Women’s Land Army volunteer (Sheila Sim), and two sergeants (the British one played by Dennis Sim, the American by a real Sgt John Sweet). And to be fair by the end there were plenty of positive things to be said about it, but perhaps my own impressions were negatively affected by my first impressions, which are of the kind of British officers you get in contemporary films (and certainly in P&P productions) of clipped RP accents delivered peremptorily and with a fair dollop of condescension, competing for annoyance only with the (non-actor) American sergeant’s incomprehension at all the very British people around him treating him like dirt, until of course they finally relent and show some compassion. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a mysterious local putting glue in women’s hair, though this doesn’t remain a mystery for too long and is all resolved in a jolly and very English sort of understanding way (despite the unexamined underlying weird sexism of the whole thing). But this is a wartime film about people of different backgrounds coming together to learn something about what they are really united for, and if you’re willing to go along with that broadly patriotic premise (albeit executed without too much grandstanding insistence), then it’s a good film. It’s also — and this is perhaps key to my ultimate feeling of positivity towards the film in the end — absolutely gorgeously lit and photographed, with a deep focus and deep shadows, alongside shards of beautiful light punctuating each frame.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • When it was a box office failure in the UK, Powell re-edited the film heavily for the American market, dropping a lot of it, but also adding a prologue and epilogue with its American protagonist (Sgt Sweet) and his wife in NYC as he talks about Canterbury, then at the end, with her there, impressing upon her the closure he achieved in visiting. It’s a little heavy-handed, of course, rather eagerly over-explaining using stats why there was an American GI in England in the first place, which is probably why the distributor wanted it added.
  • It’s a packed double-disc edition, with a number of featurettes about the film, but one of the key extras that contextualises the feature film within its era is Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister’s short film Listen to Britain (1942), a poetic propaganda film, bold in its use of sound to evoke a sense of a country united in wartime. Of course, it’s a very particular sense of nationality (and watching this on Mubi, I get the sense in their programming that putting this the day after a more recent British short film in which British Pakistani identities are examined is a pointed move), but that doesn’t detract from the artistry. The sound comes from fragments of speech in social settings, from news broadcasts, songs, the sounds of nature and of course the background drone of the warplanes and of industry. It’s all very compelling and beautiful, in its way.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Cinematographer Erwin Hillier; Starring Sheila Sim, Dennis Price, John Sweet, Eric Portman; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 28 July 2020.