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I Know Where I'm Going

(United Kingdom, 1945, 92 minutes, b&w, DVD, In English and Gaelic)

Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Wendy Hiller . . . . . . . . . . Joan Webster
Roger Livesey . . . . . . . . . . Torquil MacNeil
George Carney . . . . . . . . . . Mr. Webster
Pamela Brown . . . . . . . . . . Catriona Potts

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Archers production company is legendary for its magnificent color films, erotic, fantastic films such as Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Red Shoes. But the lesser-known I Know Where I'm Going is as unsettling, mysterious, and romantic as any of these, a masterpiece of unspoken passion. And yet the film was developed almost offhandedly, as work to keep the company busy between other projects.

I Know Where I'm Going is a black and white film which occurs in the midst of The Archers' color filmography. And there's the key to the film's origins. There were a very limited number of the giant Technicolor cameras available in England during the 1940's, and the special stock was in even shorter supply. Director-producer Powell and screenwriter-producer Pressburger were preparing their epic paean to Anglo-American wartime cooperation, A Matter of Life and Death, but Technicolor wouldn't be ready for their production for several months. Pressburger told Powell of a story idea that had been in his head for years: the story of a woman who tried to get to an island, but couldn't. Powell seized on this unlikely premise with enthusiasm, and The Archers production team, which included cinematographer Erwin Hillier, music director Allan Gray, and art director Alfred Junge crafted this sly, beautiful film in only a few months. The story of "Joan Webster's" (Wendy Hiller) bridal journey to the remote Scottish island of Kiloran, where she meets the down-at-the heels Laird of the place, "Torquil MacNeil" (Roger Livesey), who offers her a bewitching diversion from her impending marriage. So hastily was the film put together that, in order to accommodate actor Livesey's schedule (he was appearing a play by Peter Ustinov in London's West End), that the film's location shooting in Scotland had to be done with a double, and all of Livesey's scenes filmed at London's Denham Studios. Yet, nothing about the film seems at all improvised, and in its visual splendor and narrative subtlety, it is, simply put, among the most aesthetically well-integrated films ever made - as well as one of the most engaging. The films climactic storm sequence remains a triumph of special effects cinematography. (So deft was the work of cinematographer Hillier and editor John Seabourne that you'll not be able to see where the real Livesey leaves off, and his double, whom Livesey trained to walk, move, and even stand like him, takes up.)

Wendy Hiller, elegant, brash, and quite self-satisfied, sets off from Manchester to marry Sir Robert Bellinger, her boss at the vast Consolidated Chemical Works. As soon as she is aboard the train, however, the mystical and confusing spirit of Kiloran reaches out for her. In one of the most modernist montages ever filmed, Joan dreams an unsettling vision of her impending marriage to the Blimpish, older industrialist. Upon arriving, she is swept up in the primitive passions of Kiloran. Erwin Hillier's cinematography makes Scotland exotic and alluring, and its myths, of castles of the dead that cannot be entered by the living, and of the ship-killing whirlpool of Corryvreckan, become almost as real for the initially skeptical Joan as they are for the islanders. Torquil is as much a part of the island as its heather and its strand.

In Torquil, Joan meets a man who is both cosmopolitan (he has served in the War) and provincial. Knowing of the rest of the world, he is still certain of the verity of Kiloran's ancient myths and chimeras, and relates them thoughtfully to Joan. Like all the best of Powell and Pressburger films, I Know Where I'm Going insists on the necessity of accepting such paradoxes in people and life.

Joan will meet other people in the islands who seem straight out of Celtic lore. (Only Sir Robert remains unreal, and ironically remote in this remotest of all places.) Pamela Brown plays Catriona Potts as a kind of female Rochester, with a bit of the heroine of Beatrice Webb's Precious Bane thrown in for good measure. She is rough-mannered, passionate, close to the strange land, its myths and secrets, ill-tempered, impatient, and a strong, sexual woman. As Joan's attraction to Torquil grows, she must confront the fact of Pamela's brutal honesty in refashioning her own character away from the glosses and glazes of "sophisticated" society.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's films are filled to the gunwhales with references to other storytelling traditions, from the Celts to the Greeks to Dickens and beyond. Film historian Pam Cook has rightly pointed to the way I Know Where I'm Going's narrative is constructed around a reference to Poe's story "A Descent into the Maelstrom." But finally, it is Powell and Pressburger who are themselves among the most sublime storytellers in all of cinema.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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