Powell/Pressburger’s fairy tale comes to life on Criterion’s DVD
In I Know Where I’m Going, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created a modern folktale. Not an escapist fairy story but a modern myth, complete with hero, maiden, a curse, and a difficult trial that pits them against death. Despite its wartime setting (it was made in 1945), I Know Where I’m Going is not a period piece. By daring to mix a love story with fantasy elements leavened by near-documentary footage, the film has the timelessness of a legend.
Powell and Pressburger began with a simple idea: a young woman can’t get to an island. Intended as a modest black-and-white project to tide them over between productions, I Know Where I’m Going gave Powell the chance to locate a film in the outer Hebrides, an area he got to know for this project and often returned to later in his life. Before shooting on the film had formally begun, Powell spent a great deal of time shooting around the islands, including perilous shots of Corryvreckan, the lethal whirlpool. Powell was smitten with the landscape. The story is literally grounded in the mystery of these islands, captured by Powell and his cinematographer, Erwin Hillier, in one exquisite black-and-white frame after another.
I Know Where I’m Going opens with a montage of Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), who from toddlerdom to young womanhood has no doubt about where she’s going. On the eve of her wedding journey, she has a swanky supper with her father (George Carney), a Babbitty bank manager ill at ease with his daughter’s high-flying tastes. She announces her impending marriage to Sir Robert Bellinger, many years her senior and head of Consolidated Chemical Industries, where she is employed. It’s one of the film’s strengths that Joan’s pretensions and airs seem silly rather than annoying, the foolish posturings of a young woman bound on bettering herself. Her motherlessness plays no small role in this; her obstinate self-sufficiency evidently compensates for her father’s meekness and her mother’s absence. Joan bears a resemblance to Katherine Hepburn characters, but, fortunately, Hiller has none of Hepburn’s cloying grit, nor the sentimentality. Like Pamela Brown, the other female lead, Hiller shows us a flinty, quick-witted woman who can do without a man but would rather not.
Bellinger marshals every facet of his inamorata’s trip from northern England to Kiloran, his Hebridean refuge. In the train, Joan reviews his elaborate itinerary, consults the map, and then poses with her wedding dress for the mirror. (Throughout the film, Joan reassures herself in moments of doubt by consulting her reflection as though confirming her very existence or reminding herself that she’s in the real world.) For all her no-nonsense strategies, she remains susceptible to more quixotic desires.
Snug in her sleeper as the train speeds towards Scotland, Joan envisions nuptials with the engines of Consolidated Chemical Industries, her father presiding as minister. Tartanned hills appear on a cartoonish and childlike relief map of Scotland, the dream soundtracked by the sounds of the train, transposed into a chorus of obsequiousness as servile voices wait on “Lady Bellinger.” Powell and Pressburger make no explanations or justifications for these blatantly unreal sequences, which are punctuated by the conflation of a stove-pipe hat with the train’s crazy whistle. The mix of the real — references to the ongoing war, for example — and the undisguised fantastic set a mythic tone that makes the world of the film complete in itself.
All goes awry at the Kiloran harbor, where a thick fog impedes the final portion of Joan’s voyage. Even Bellinger’s apparently limitless clout can’t alter the weather. Joan initially refuses to accept this fact, clutching the itinerary until, blown from her hands, it sinks into the sea. Other forces are at work. Joan’s process of finally realizing Bellinger is not for her culminates in an echo of this moment, when her wedding dress similarly drowns.
Joan encounters another passenger for Kiloran, a young naval officer, Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey) who invites her to shelter at the nearby house of a friend. Reluctantly, Joan accepts, making her way to the house and pausing, critic Ian Christie points out in his comments on the DVD, on its threshold as if about to enter another world. MacNeil introduces himself formally and then presents her to the openly eccentric Colonel (Captain C.W.R. Knight, F.Z.S.), a falconer currently bunking at the house. The owner, Catriona MacLaine Potts (Pamela Brown), is first seen in profile with her pack of Irish wolfhounds. Rifle in hand and silhouetted in solid black against the wild landscape, this shot of Catriona is one of the most striking in the film, firmly establishing her deep harmony with her surroundings. There is something of the sorceress about her. Freed of her husband and children (Mr. Potts is in the wars, her children at school), Catriona roams the hills, sustaining herself and the Colonel on rabbits. In a close-up, Powell details Joan’s appreciation of Catriona’s authenticity, the character and Brown herself so forceful that she nearly steals the movie. (In part, this has to do with Powell’s love affair with Brown, then in full swing. But more credit is due Brown’s on-camera power, her beauty singular and unnerving.)
The film relies a great deal on offscreen events and places: neither Potts nor Bellinger appear; an annual folk festival in Oban is lovingly detailed but not shown; and, perhaps most boldly, Kiloran itself is never seen. Paradoxically, these unseen matters enrich what is shown, revealing a great deal about the characters’ values and beliefs without resorting to straight exposition. Like a folk story, the film embroiders its own story with bits and pieces of other tales.
Joan remains stranded across from Kiloran, and Torquil, deeply attracted to her, tries to help. They make contact with Bellinger, whose braying over the airwaves exposes him as a blowhard. In the meantime, Joan has discovered that Bellinger merely rents the island; Torquil is the hereditary but straitened Laird of Kiloran; and even what appears to her to be irrational superstition — Torquil’s refusal to enter the local castle because of its reputed curse on the men of his family — becomes understandable as she spends more time in his unaffected company. He respects his traditions much as he respects the untamable weather of the islands, happy to live within their limits. Like the tartanned hills of Joan’s dream, the curse, potentially a hokey touch, becomes part of the movie’s lore.
Oral traditions and voices play key parts. The locals express themselves in a succinct lilt that contrasts deeply with Bellinger’s commands; in the shrieks of the wealthy friends he insists Joan look up; and even in Joan’s rat-a-tat-tat style. Though forceful, Livesey’s voice was a leonine purr and works beautifully with the voices of the real locals to give a sense of people so in harmony with their surroundings that even their speech seems of a piece, soft and stark.
As in all good folktales, Joan runs into trouble when she tries to take fate into her hands. After several days with no break in the weather, she bribes a young local to chance the crossing to Kiloran. Torquil joins them at the last moment. They run into severe difficulties, ultimately skirting the edge of the notorious Corryvreckan whirlpool. Powell made inventive use of actual footage in back projection shots, creating impressive tension with quite simple effects. And, of course, watching Torquil and Joan nearly die together makes their final decision to live together seem inevitable.
Powell and Pressburger composed the film from a series of sleights of hand. Already mentioned are the fantastical dream sequence and the cobbled-together special effects of the whirlpool. But most spectacular was Powell’s work with Livesey. Bound by contract to appear in a play in London during the entire filming, Livesey never ventured beyond its suburbs. Instead, he trained a double to mimic his movements and stance for the location shots, with Powell shooting close-ups in a studio or just outside London. In A Life in Movies, Powell jubilantly admits: “I’m not sure, but I think it is one of the cleverest things I ever did in movies.” What makes this and Powell’s other work, alone and in collaboration with Pressburger, so compulsively watchable was his delight in using film to do the impossible. The alchemy he performed was always in the service of the story and the audience. Powell gloried in the medium’s abracadabra qualities. Folktale characters triumph over fear, withstanding a test to discover a truth or real love. With its emphasis on moderation over consumption, on eccentricity over conformity, and, finally, on authenticity over posing, the film continues a folkloric tradition. It argues for intuition and destiny rather than planning and strategy, against shiny novelties in favor of the genuine and enduring, and, finally, for not being too certain of anything — including where one is going. Powell combined the audacity of the con man with real respect for his viewers, rooting his somewhat incredible story in the realities of Hebridean landscape and indigenous residents. In the film, he and his team present an improbable blend of the specific and the archetypal, the result an impeccable delight.
The print is generally of high quality and doubtless the best available, considering it dates from 1945. Film critic Ian Christie gives a workmanlike scene-by-scene commentary, most of it lifted directly from Powell’s excellent A Life in Movies — with one glaring gaffe that’s all Christie’s own: while discussing other films made in Scotland, he identifies the director of Local Hero as Douglas, rather than Bill Forsyth; New Yorker television and theater critic Nancy Franklin gives a rather long-winded explanation of her obsession with I Know Where I’m Going and journey to the Hebrides, documented by Mark Cousins — her literalness a stark contrast to the ineffable qualities of the film. Finally, it’s just not that interesting to see her trace the film’s locations. There’s an informative short of Powell discussing The Edge of the World and a substantial excerpt from this film; behind the scenes and making-of stills. Best of all are the home movies shot by Powell on one of his frequent hikes in the Hebrides, accompanied by his longtime personal assistant, Bill Paton, naturalist Seton Gordon and Sweep, Powell’s dog. Unlike the other materials, these personal films and the details of the making of I Know Where I’m Going, both tenderly and intelligently narrated by his widow, picture editor Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, actually add to the pleasures of viewing the film.