Director: Michael Powell
In the 1940s Michael Powell and his writing, producing, and directing partner Emeric Pressburger created a string of films of astounding ambition and scope. In their complex narrative structures and weighty themes, sophisticated use of color, creative integration of music and image, and bravura application of technical resources to create cinema illusion, these films are a series of masterpieces nearly unequaled in motion picture history. Yet in the middle of making dazzling movies like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger concocted a seemingly simple little black-and-white romance that is in its modest way as great an achievement as those more adventurous pictures. The film is I Know Where I'm Going! and of all the Powell and Pressburger movies, it is the gentlest and most charming. Michael Powell called it "the sweetest film we ever made."
The film opens with a short prologue/credits sequence that establishes the main character, Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller). We briefly see Joan as a toddler, child, and young woman who always "knew where she was going," a headstrong person who from her earliest years knew what she wanted and showed single-minded determination to get it. Now as an adult she has determined to marry a rich man and live a life of comfort and has become engaged to her older employer, the industrial magnate Sir Robert Bellinger. Within minutes after the film begins she is on her way to her wedding in Scotland, where Bellinger has established a wartime residence on the island of Kiloran off the west coast. Everything on the journey goes smoothly until the final leg, when she must take a boat from the island of Mull to Kiloran, for the harbor is fog-bound and no boats are able to operate. Joan now finds herself temporarily stranded in a small Scottish village, to the London sophisticate as alien a place as a foreign country.
Joan also finds herself in the company of a young Scottish naval officer home for a few days' leave, Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesy), also on his way to Kiloran and stranded until the fog lifts. During Joan's stay on Mull, Torquil becomes her guide to the local scenery and culture, introducing her to his friends Catriona (Pamela Brown), who has known Torquil since childhood, and Col. Barnstaple (C.K.W. Knight), an eccentric falconer. He also introduces Joan to other local inhabitants and, outfitted in traditional attire including the kilt, accompanies her to a ceilidh (or traditional Scottish social gathering, pronounced KAY-lee) celebrating the sixtieth wedding anniversary of the parents of his friend John Campbell (Powell regular John Laurie, who is credited as an advisor on the ceilidh sequence), where Joan is introduced to the music and dancing of the isles.
As anxious as Joan is to get to Kiloran, she finds that two things now stand in the way of the comfortable future she has plotted for herself so deliberately. One is practical: the fog which at first wouldn't lift has been followed by a gale that makes it too dangerous to be out on the water. The other is emotional: she finds herself unwillingly attracted to the unpretentious and quietly noble Tarquin, and the attraction is clearly mutual. At first just anxious to get to Kiloran and Sir Robert, she now becomes frantic to get there before her emotions can derail her carefully laid plans for the future.
Finally, in desperation Joan offers a large sum of money to a young boatman to take her to Kiloran during a lull in the storm and Torquil, recognizing the danger of such a foolish act, especially given the treacherous nature of the notorious local whirlpool called the Corryvreckan, insists on accompanying her. During the voyage the worst happens. A gale blows up, the boat's engine stalls, and the three foolhardy sailors must fight for their lives to avoid being drowned in the Corryvreckan, providing the narrative rationale for the thrilling set piece that forms the climactic sequence of the film.
It's a big, technically intricate sequence composed of location shots of the actual Corryvreckan (including some filmed by Powell himself with his handheld camera while strapped to the mast of a boat), shots of the actors filmed in the studio tank at Denham near London using the same small open boat as in the location shots, miniatures and models of the boat and its passengers, and most impressive of all, a Corryvreckan created for the film in the tank at Denham. This mock Corryvreckan, inspired by Cecil B. DeMille's parting of the Red Sea in the silent version of The Ten Commandments, uses gelatin rather than water, a specially built machine to create a realistic whirlpool in the studio tank, and a high-speed camera running backwards so that the whirlpool appears to be rising from the sea when the footage is projected normally. Aside from the sometimes obvious rear projection in the studio shots, the blend of the real and the simulated is nearly seamless. On both the technical and the emotional level, the entire sequence is just stunning.
The Corryvreckan sequence, while the part of the film that most obviously shows Powell's amazing technical skill, is not the only thing in I Know Where I'm Going! that does this, which is why I called the film seemingly simple. Powell originally wanted James Mason to play Torquil, but when Mason was reluctant to go on location to Scotland, he began to look elsewhere. He had known Roger Livesey since the mid-1930s, when he tested him for the lead in one of his quota-quickies, and the two later had a great success with Livesey playing the title role in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). Now Livesey wanted to play Torquil and embarked on a campaign to convince Powell, who thought that at thirty-eight Livesey was too old for the part, to cast him. He lost weight, dyed his hair blond, and worked on modifying his body language to suggest that of a man ten years younger. It worked and he got the role.
The only hitch was that Livesey was committed to a play in London and wouldn't be able to go to Scotland when the location shooting was scheduled. By now convinced that Livesey was indeed right for Torquil, Powell promised him he could get around this. Using a specially selected and coached double for the location shots, he cleverly combined long shots of the double with closer shots of Livesey filmed at Denham and carefully manipulated staging, editing, and optical effects to conceal the fact that, as Powell writes in his autobiography, Livesey "never came within five hundred miles of the Western Isles." If you don't already know this before you see the film, it's unlikely you will be aware of it. Powell later wrote that "so perfect was the illusion that I couldn't tell myself, now, which is Roger and which is his double."
Yet for all Powell's technical skill at creating cinematic illusion, what makes his films so memorable is that no matter how much trickery he used to produce those unforgettable images, he never lost sight of the importance of building the film on the human element—a compelling story and authentic character relationships and emotions. None of his films illustrates this better than I Know Where I'm Going! All the people in the film seem fully defined and individualized, right down to the unforgettable supporting characters like Catriona, Col. Barnstaple, John Campbell, Rebecca Crozier the grande dame of Mull, and characters who appear in only one or two scenes. At the center of the film, of course, are Torquil and Joan—Torquil the completely unaffected man and Joan the self-willed young woman on her way to marriage and a new life who is so taken by his steadfastness and openness that for the first time ever she begins to doubt that she does know where she's going.
As Torquil and Joan, Roger Livesey and Wendy Hiller play off each other beautifully. Livesey locates the calm center of Torquil and never strays from it. That constancy is the essential personal quality of Torquil, but it means that he is basically a static character. Hiller has the more challenging role. She has to establish an apparently fixed character then show how that person gradually undergoes an involuntary process of self-discovery. Joan is a woman whose outer rigidity acts to tamp down an inner emotional volatility that becomes agitated by her reactions to the people and places she encounters on her way to Kiloran. She finds an unfamiliar culture with customs and values that might have come from a previous century and falls in love with both a man and a way of life. Under the influence of Torquil and Scotland, this woman who has lived her entire life wrapped up in herself is unexpectedly taken out of herself, and the experience transforms her. Wendy Hiller shows subtly but unmistakably the conflict Joan feels as, against her will, she finds her own nature changing. Hiller rarely made movies, preferring to work on the stage, but her performance in I Know Where I'm Going! is simply one of the most memorable by an actress in British cinema.
I Know Where I'm Going! is perhaps Michael Powell's most personal film, for it expresses more strongly than any other his love of the sea and especially his love of Scotland. As with all of Powell and Pressburger's films, this one is a collaborative effort between the two, and I certainly don't wish to minimize the contribution of Pressburger. Yet the thing that gives the film its essential flavor, the Scottish element, was the product of Michael Powell. In his autobiography Powell describes how in I Know Where I'm Going! Pressburger devised the basic events of the plot and then he (Powell) fleshed them out:
This is the way Emeric and I always worked. He invented a situation and I followed it through to the end. Authors think of a storm, wind and waves and a stormy sea. A director personalizes the conflict. . . . According to our usual plan of work, my job was to add to and change the location sequences, bringing in all I had learned of authentic dialogue, atmosphere and names of the Western Isles.With Torquil and Joan, Michael Powell's Scotland is really the third main character in the film. Powell invites us to discover along with Joan the color and customs of a place he depicts as magical, a place that has the power to bewitch, to alter the most ingrained attitudes, and to move those who encounter it in wholly unanticipated but serendipitous directions.
You might also like:
- Two Early Thrillers by Michael Powell, Part 1: The Spy in Black (1939)
- Two Early Thrillers by Michael Powell, Part 2: Contraband (1940)
- Two by Michael Powell: The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
- A Small Dark Masterwork: The Small Back Room (1949)