Friday, May 21, 2021

I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), a Black & White Jewel from Powell & Pressburger

Rich, vivid Technicolor is one of the hallmarks of the most well-known and celebrated of the gorgeous, masterful films from the production team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Archers. From the mid-1940s into the early '50s, almost all of their films were shot in striking 3-strip Technicolor, often by cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Cardiff had been a camera operator for Denham Studios when the American Technicolor Company recruited him as their first technician in Great Britain. He would shoot England's first color film and initially work with Powell and Pressburger as a second unit camera operator on their first Technicolor film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). He would graduate to cinematographer on their second color outing, A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven (1946). But there would be a lengthy delay in the production of the second film because of a limited availability of Technicolor cameras and film stock in England at that time. 

In the meantime, producer/screenwriter Emeric Pressburger mentioned to his partner, producer/director Michael Powell, an idea he'd had for a story about a woman who is trying, with great difficulty, to get to an island. This fragment of a concept evolved to become I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), a black and white beauty that in time got lost in the shuffle among The Archers' more colorful epics and grand scale dramas. But this outwardly "smaller" film is no less artful or engaging than the more prominent entries in Powell and Pressburger's filmography. 

The title, taken from an old Scottish folk song, makes no secret of a central theme and an entertaining opening credits sequence provides ample exposition:

 

Wendy Hiller, flashing her nobly sculpted cheekbones and upturned nose, strides across the screen as all-grown-up Joan Webster. Now a stylishly suited 25-year-old bright young thing in a jaunty leopard skin hat with matching purse, she's about to have drinks and dinner with her bank manager father and is all wound up over the good news she's about to share with him. She's on the verge of getting everything she's ever wanted for as long as she could want anything; tomorrow she will wed Sir Robert Bellinger, her employer, an industrialist her father's age and "one of the wealthiest men in England." She will be rich! At dinner, her father stifles her sudden flash of pretense toward the waitstaff with the admonition, "Stop acting, you're not Lady Bellinger yet!"

That evening Joan sets off on the first leg of her many-legged journey to her fiance, Lord Bellinger, who is staying on the Island of Kiloran in Scotland's Western Isles. Boarding a train out of Manchester, Joan is on her way, but later that night she will have an unusual dream...

En route to the tiny fishing village of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, her last stop before she sails for Kiloran, Joan travels a winding road over a stone bridge, around a secluded cove and beside an ancestral castle dating from ancient times.  As she draws nearer to her destination, the weather shifts from promising ("It's a sublime day!") to foggy and wet and windy. She is leaving modern industrial world where she has been very comfortable and entering into a primeval landscape and "old ways" that will have an unsettling effect on her.

Joan sits on her suitcase at the dock waiting for Sir Robert's boat

Joan's best laid plans begin to fall apart. A gust of wind blows her precious itinerary into the sea and stormy weather prevents Sir Robert's boat from crossing to Tobermory to pick her up that evening as scheduled. Through Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), a Naval officer home on shore leave, she finds shelter with his old friend Catriona Potts (Pamela Brown). Mrs. Potts arrives home toting a rifle, accompanied by a pack of howling Irish Wolfhounds. Windblown and down to earth with a gaze that misses nothing, Catriona is the antithesis of Joan.

Catriona Potts and her Wolfhounds

Bad weather lingers and, with barely concealed delight, Torquil escorts Joan around the port, introducing her to the local folk, to highland culture and lore and to the landscape of Scotland's rugged Western Isles. She asks with wonder when she hears an eerie calling sound and is told it is a pod of seals singing, their response to the warm and foggy weather. When she comments to Torquil that "People around here are very poor, I suppose," he replies, "Not poor, they just haven't got money." "It's the same thing, " she remarks. "Oh no," he says, "it's something quite different." And he takes her to a traditional celebration of highland dancing and singing, a Ceilidh (kay-lee) in honor of a local couple's Diamond wedding anniversary...

  

When the weather refuses let up, Joan grows desperate. Something deep and elemental has begun to stir in her nature and she has also become strongly attracted to Torquil, an attraction that is mutual. Beginning to doubt herself and losing her grip, her reaction is to double down on her purpose and try to find a way to cross the channel to Kiloran, regardless of the risk. 

the Corryvreckan

I Know Where I'm Going! is the story of a young woman's transformation as she learns there can be much more to life than its glossy surfaces. Wendy Hiller is spellbinding in her portrayal of Joan's gradual, initially begrudging response to Scotland's wild beauty and the man who introduces her to it. There is both subtlety and intensity in her portrait of Joan's difficult journey from a narrow, selfish world view to an open embrace of life. Hiller made few films, among her most memorable are Pygmalion (1938) for which she was Oscar-nominated, Major Barbara (1941), Separate Tables (1958) for which she won a supporting Oscar, and Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Her performance in I Know Where I'm Going! is arguably her most moving and enduring.

A moment of truth

The film's visual splendor owes much to DP Erwin Hillier. Anglo-German, he was born and raised in Berlin where he worked at Germany's UFA studios with F.W. Murnau on Tabu (1931) and Fritz Lang on M (1931). These influences are apparent in his photography on I Know Where I'm Going! Michael Powell praised Hillier's "keen eye for effect and texture...whether in the studio or on location" and noted that he had an affinity for cloudy skies; this would serve him well on I Know Where I'm Going! The thrilling special effects imagined by Powell, Hillier and production designer Alfred Junge for the climactic "Corryvreckan" scenes involving a whirlpool in the ocean channel were created by editing on-location shots of the rough seas near Tobermory together with footage filmed in a tank at Denham Studios.

I Know Where I'm Going! was released in December 1945 and was successful in both Europe and the U.S. But Powell and Pressburger were now committed to Technicolor and in rapid succession produced three color-saturated films, A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). Black Narcissus would be nominated for and win two Oscars, for cinematography (Jack Cardiff) and art direction (Alfred Junge). The Red Shoes was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture and won for its art direction and score. Both films were quickly proclaimed masterpieces and are acknowledged as two of the most magnificent Technicolor films ever made. And so I Know Where I'm Going! was for a long while forgotten.

I Know Where I'm Going! screened during the 2021 TCM virtual film festival, an indication of its rediscovery. At last! Faultlessly conceived and realized from its screenplay, performances and photography to its production design/art direction, editing and score, this is one of Powell and Pressburger's great masterpieces, lacking nothing for not having been filmed in 3-strip Technicolor. 

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This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association's Spring 2021 blogathon, Hidden Classics. Click here for links to all participating blogs and enjoy!

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This post was voted the Best Classic Film Review/Drama of 2021 by the members of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Many thanks to the group for the honor!


 

28 comments:

  1. I still have not seen this one from Powell & Pressburger, but thank you for reminding me so eloquently that I'm missing out! - Tynan @ 4 Star Films

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    1. I predict you'll become a big fan once you finally watch it, Tynan.

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  2. What a clever choice and an excellent description of this Powell and Pressburger film Lady Eve! I regret that I've never seen it and didn't stay up for it at the TCMFF. I'm a fan of the late Dame Wendy Hiller, and would love to see her in this. The cinematography looks gorgeous and the Scottish setting intriguing. This one will be high on my to watch list. Thank for your excellent review and film clips.

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    1. Thank you, Christian. One of the reasons I included the film clips was to illustrate just how special this film is. I hope you are able to see it soon, Christian, and be sure to let me know your reaction.

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  3. I saw this one for the first time last year. I don't know why I resisted it, since it is always one of those films that boasts glowing reviews, but I'm so glad I finally found it. Wendy Hiller - she of the sculpted cheeks and upturned nose - is just the kind of gal I'd love to have as a friend. Wonderful post (as always) and I hope this inspires more people to check out this gem.

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    1. So glad you were able to watch this, Marsha. Now you know that all the glowing reviews were warranted - and you know the many charms of IKWIG!, one of which is Ms. Hiller.

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  4. I love this movie so much. Thanks for bringing it to the blogathon. The cast are wonderful, but oh, Wendy Hiller was something special. She's one of those people I would watch if she only stepped on a box and read the phone book out loud. Lovely post.

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    1. Thank you, Jacqueline. So nice to hear from another IKWIG! devotee. By the way, I imagine Wendy Hiller standing on a box reading the phone book would be absolutely enchanting.

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  5. I agree that 'I Know Where I'm going' is a wonderful film. However there is another semi-forgotten black and white film from Powell and Pressburger which I, for one, prefer. This is 'The Small Back Room' released in 1949 and renamed 'Hour of Glory' for its American release. It's set in 1943, after the Blitz and before the coming of the V1 and V2 flying bombs, when the Nazis were trying out various missiles. It didn't do particulary well, possibly because in 1949 British people didn't want to be reminded of the dangers they'd endured a few years earlier. The hero Sammy is a government research scientist in the eponymous small back room and his girlfriend Susan is a secretary there. They are played by David Farrar and Kathleen Byron, who had been Mr Dean and Sister Ruth (the mad nun) in 'Black Narcissus' (1947) In this film the chemistry between them is palpable and it's clear that they live together, even if Susan's flat is across the landing from Sammy's. Sammy is damaged physically because he has lost a foot and mentally because he is in constant pain and close to being an alcoholic, since booze is the only thing that gives him any relief. The film excels in portraying so many aspects of British life at the time - the different nationalities gsthered together and mainly in uniform, the office politics with the PR man who has no grasp of the science but wields huge power, the constant sense of living on the edge with a very uncertain future. There is a great final scene when Sammy has to try to defuse one of the Nazi missiles that has landed on Chesil Beach. By the way I think the film's original title is much better than 'Hour of Glory'. Sammy doesn't achieve glory, more a very intense kind of job satisfaction and some redemption.

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  6. SUCH a great movie. (Of course I am partial to most of P&P's films.) I can't think of two actors who are more compelling and likeable than Hiller and Livesey. Your post is a very nice summary of why this movie needs to move out of the shadows.

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    1. Seems it's coming out of the shadows - slowly, slowly, though.

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  7. I hope it comes out of the shadows more completely because I have not seen I Know Where I'm Going and am having a bit of trouble finding it. I had not even heard of it before reading your review, which has inspired me to look for the film. Thanks for the post!

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    1. It occasionally airs on TCM, is available on the Criterion Channel and is free on YouTube. Also available to rent on Amazon Prime Video. Don't give up!

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  8. Lovely review. I’m Scottish and the west coast of Scotland is beautiful.
    Apparently James Mason was cast in the lead but had a falling out with Michael Powell. Roger Livesey seemed ideal.
    Wendy Hiller should have been a bigger star - brilliant in Pygmalion.

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    1. Thank you. My paternal grandfather was born in Scotland, so I have a connection to the country. Whenever I watch I Know Where I'm Going! I long to visit Tobermory - and all of the Western Isles, really. Someday.

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  9. I have not seen this gem. Other than The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom I have not seen any Powell/Pressburger films. Way behind and need to catch up. Always a pleasure to read your entries. Thanks for joining in.

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    1. Gotta see this one, John, and Black Narcissus (which seems right up your alley). There are other worthy P&P films, but these are IMO the best.

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  10. A perfect film, a perfect choice for the blogathon, my favourite love story and the best punchline of all time!

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    1. Agree on IKWIG!'s perfection and that it is a wonderful love story, but what is the punchline you're referring to?

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    2. The reveal of the terrible curse cracks me up.

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    3. Aha! It's kind of adorable, isn't it?

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  11. I remember this movie being on TCM Part a few yeara ago and I as bummed I had to miss the opportunity to talk about it with my friends. Powell and Pressbirger ar marvelous with or without color.
    Cheers!

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    1. Powell and Pressburger are equal to any filmmaker/filmmakers of the classic or any other era. I'm rarely on Twitter so missed the TCM Party chat about IKWIG!

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  12. I really enjoyed your review of this movie. I have seen it a couple of times in the last six months but I was not familiar with it prior to that time. Your vivid description makes me want to see it again soon. Wendy Hiller is a great actress and very captivating to watch. She was wonderful in this film and even better
    at 75, when she played a wealthy widow in "Ann of Green Gables." I agree with you that "I Know Where I'm Going" is a hidden classic. Thank you for writing such an excellent review.

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    1. Thank you!

      I've never seen Wendy Hiller less than superb - her Eliza Doolittle is the best ever and her very brief turn in Murder on the Orient Express (the 1974 version) as Princess Dragomiroff just delights me. I believe she could do anything - but she made few movies, preferring the theater (would love to have seen her on stage).

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  13. I think this is among the top four films of one of my fellow students at university. I had no idea what it was about however and you really picked my curiosity with this great and informative article! Hidden gems are sometimes the best!

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    1. I hope you will have an opportunity to see I Know Where I'm Going!, Virginie, I think you will agree that it is one of P&P's best.

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