Posts tagged: emeric pressburger

A Production Of The Archers #3

I Know Where I’m Going! (Powell/Pressburger, 1945)

If you ever visit, amongst their features you will find a collection of lists – contributions by various film celebrities both big and small of their ten favorite Criterion DVD releases. I noticed one there recently authored by Ricky Jay. In case you don’t recognize the name, Mr. Jay is a magician who works extensively but not exclusively in card tricks, as one might guess from the name of his most renowned stage show, “Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants.” He’s relevant to Criterion as an actor in their release House of Games, but he also acts in all or nearly all of David Mamet’s films, as well as things like Deadwood and The Prestige. One of the films on his list is Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going!, about which he says:

“My wife worked with Michael Powell, and treasures this as her favorite movie. Although I am genuinely fond of the film, it did not make my first cut. Upon reflection, however, its inclusion seems prudent.”

Good move, Ricky. Before you get your head ripped off at home. This film inspires that sort of ferocious reaction in some. On the disc there is a feature regarding a woman, a writer from New York, who stumbled upon the film and was so deeply moved by it she took an extensive trip to the Western Isles of Scotland to visit it’s many shooting locations. She met Michael Powell at a screening in the late 80s, shortly before making her trip. She told him how the film had changed her life, and that she was going to Tobermory for three weeks just to see the place it was set. Powell, well in his dotage, told her that if she spent three weeks in Tobermory she would certainly have her life changed. The romance of the film, as much about the place as it is about the two leads, makes that seem a feasible notion.

There’s an awful lot to like and admire, and I’m sure I’ll get around to enumerating some quantity of those things, but let’s start with this: it’s a miracle of a screenplay. The triumph here is first and foremost writer Emeric Pressburger’s. Here’s the pitch – a young woman wants to get to an island, but cannot and cannot, and when she finally can, she doesn’t want to go anymore. It could not be simpler, more hermetically perfect, and it ought to make all the rest of the pitches running around Hollywood feel ashamed and childish, leading to dumbass trailers that start with narration like “In a world…” or “Robert DeNiro’s a cop with an edge…” – god, shoot yourself now. IKWIG (it’s known as IKWIG, isn’t that cute? It even shows up in the production credits that way at one point.) is a million miles from such nonsense, being a much finer and more valuable nonsense instead – a story deeply rooted in fable, in magic, in timeless truth.

Among the many threads Pressburger pulls together into an integral whole are not one but two myths (that of the whirlpool of Corryvreckan and those unbreakable hairs of faithful women, and Moy Castle with it’s curse on the Lairds of Kiloran), the almost-postwar economy and the urge to get on from the business of war to the business of life, country mice versus city mice, the fault lines of the marriage between Scotland and England, how the ghosts of old relationships haunt new ones, the illusion of control versus the humbling reality of chance, class differences – perhaps the inescapable subject of all english literature, and a symbolic golden eagle (credited real name: Mr. Trubshaw), half-wild, half trained, difficult to hold onto. More than enough. These elements somehow balance and inform each other to create delirious romance. All this the story has, and yet there’s no more plot than you could scribble on a napkin. Prospective writers, take note.

I’d like to concentrate on the first 15 or 20 minutes of the film, which introduces Joan Webster as played by Wendy Hiller and takes her on her journey from the big city to the edge of Scots waters, where she will teeter for the rest of the film, having her certainties tested.


Our first view of Joan Webster, resolutely knowing where she is going.


And again, all grown up, striding forward without a degree’s deviation.


She meets her father for dinner at a posh restaurant. What’s nice about this is that she calls him “darling”, repeatedly, so that we at least half-suspect its her boyfriend for awhile. He’s further identified as a bank executive, and she wants to know about her account. Joan = goldigger is thus immediately floated. After he’s identified as dad it becomes clear she’s more middle class by birth – dad is not comfortable in these swank surroundings, wonders what people will think he’s doing with bank money. But it’s clear she’s a daddy’s girl, and she’s much warmer with him than anyone else in the film.


She shows him why she wanted to see him – rockery!


When asked who she’s marrying she simply shows him this card, which he identifies as her works card. “You can’t marry Consolidated Chemical Industries,” he points out. Joan demonstrates she can and will – she’s marrying hyperrich Sir Robert Bellinger, owner of the company, and she’s off to meet him on his Scots island in the Hebrides to be married, straightaway. Mr. Webster notes that Bellinger must be about as old as he is. Daddy issues, daddy issues, daddy issues.


Joan consults her compact mirror for the first time. She can’t get enough of this as it turns out – self-reflection of the purely surface variety is one of her favorite pastimes. Dad calls her out for putting on an act: “You’re not Lady Bellinger yet.”


She must bustle off that very night to head for Scotland. Dad sees her off, along with an employee of CCI. Dad’s finally impressed because she gets her own sleeper car, an astonishing luxury in time of war. She’s off on The Highland Express!


For the first time, Joan consults the itinerary the CCI man gave her. Detailed to the minute how she will get from A to Z. Control.


Bit boring though. She’d rather stare at her wedding dress.


Or herself.


As Joan sleeps in her private room, she dreams, and it’s time for a Powellian flight of fancy. She dreams herself into her wedding dress, at the ceremony.


The Reverend is her father (!), who asks if she takes CCI to be her husband. She does. He looks up to the heavens and asks CCI if it takes her as its wife.


“Tweeeeet!” Evidently it does.


She still looks somnambulent, dreaming, but she’s upright and with a new hairstyle – is this her idea of “Lady Bellinger” hair? I’m not sure. Pound notes swirl all around her.


“Next station, Gretna Green. You’re over the border now.” This is still one of the most startling film images for me, anywhere, ever. This was the second Archers film I ever saw. After being quite entertained and intrigued by 49th Parallel, I fell in love with the whole catalog at this moment, with this model shot.


The dream ends loudly and abruptly – time to transfer! She gathers her things frantically. Waiting for her is another CCI man, along with the train station manager in a silk top hat. Bellinger is hugely important but always absent. He appears only through these intermediaries, or as a voice on a speaker. He might as well be a corporation. About these Bellinger men – they meet her at every pause in her destination except the last one. That last step is the killer.


Just because the dream sequence is over doesn’t mean Powell is done with the surrealism. The station manager’s top hat begins to puff steam, and turns into…


…Joan’s next train.


Joan travels by train, by boat to the Isle of Mull, and by car to Mull’s western coast where a small private boat is supposed to meet her to take her to Bellinger’s island of Kiloran. Here, at quayside, some 17 minutes into a 95 minute film, she finally meets Roger Livesey as Torquil MacNeil. This makes it seem as if the story is Joan’s, but it’s not – it plays as being equally about both of them by the time all’s done. In fact within minutes of his introduction that new balance asserts itself. MacNeil is also waiting for the boat to Kiloran, and tells Joan they’re out of luck – the boat won’t be coming in this weather. What Joan doesn’t know now but will learn, among other illusions that get popped, is that Bellinger is just a tenant on Kiloran, and this not-particularly wealthy Naval officer is the true Laird of Kiloran.


Joan waits for a boat that isn’t coming.


Her to-the-minute itinerary, having lost its power, blows away. Control is gone. Chance, or fate, now rules.


She eventually must give up waiting and seek shelter at the local house where Torquil is staying with friends. As she walks away from the quay, there are mists, and a girl herding cattle, and dreamy music, and she might well be trudging with her luggage back in time, away from worldly things, and straight into Brigadoon.

So ends the formal beginning to the story. From here on a journey interrupted becomes a battle of wills between heart and head. There are literally dozens of additional little moments to appreciate, even in just this first section of the film – the credits themselves, so inventively rendered, the swishpan from the bartender to Joan, the way the restaurant Maitre’De magically appears at her table, as if on roller skates, the freighter ship Captain on the trip to Mull telling her it’s “a sublime day”, even as the clouds burst and seas roil. But let’s move on. I find I can’t stop this post without at least a few more caps from the rest of the film:


Catriona Potts and her dogs (wolfhounds?), coming through the mists.


Catriona’s house, where Torquil and Joan pass the night. Separate bedrooms of course, but close enough to pass a cigarette between the windows.



On the buses. Give and take, and encounters with the locals.


The Legend of Corryvreckan. Prince Vreckan’s fight with the whirpool to win his ladies’ hand.


Joan tries to part company with Torquil, worried what people will think if they spend so much time together while she waits for the seas to calm. “Lady Bellinger” reasserts herself.


That’s reasonable on the face of it, but as they settle into separate tables, pretending not to know each other, the absurdity is plain.


A phone booth, next to a waterfall where no one can hear anything. This is not a prop, it’s a feature of the location.


They’re invited to a Ceilidh to celebrate a local wedding anniversary. As they watch from the side, Torquil translates The Nut-Brown Maid from the Gaelic. “You’re the maid for me”. The cards are getting placed on the table at last.


This fellow probably has the fourth biggest part in the film. He is credited as Capt C.Z.R. Knight, and he plays Colonel Barnstable, a falconer trying to retrieve his golden eagle, also named Torquil. Capt Knight is a natural ham, good value as light comic relief, and a non-professional actor. He really is a falconer, which is no doubt how Powell came about him, helping provide birds to a few films.


Torquil turns up the pressure.


Catriona tells Torquil that Joan has paid one of the local boys to try and take her across to Kiloran even though the weather is still dead dangerous. She makes it clear that Joan’s trying to get away from him while she still can. Poignant because this is the second love story – with virtually no words it is clear that these two grew up together and were lovers as youths. It is probable that Torquil took the worst of it, and probable that they will always be at least a little attached. Their ancestors are also connected – it is the Catriona MacLaine of centuries past who placed the dread curse on all Lairds or Kiloran.


Torquil catches Joan as she’s leaving to try and help pilot the boat across.



They struggle to keep the ship’s motors going as the whirpool of Corryvreckan pulls them closer…



Back on land, they wait and pray. Ironically the boy she hired is someone’s fiancee as well – to try and make her marriage go forward, she’s placed another one at risk.


Torquil MacNeil risks the Curse, and crosses the threshold of the ancient Castle of Moy.



The curse revealed.

One of the production facts that’s hard to take on retrospect is that Roger Livesey never got within 500 miles of the location at Tobermory. He was working on the London stage simultaneous with the shoot. It’s pretty undetectable – he’s very effectively doubled, local locations are recreated in or near London, and the rear projection is higher quality than usual.

Lastly, according to Powell’s autobiography A Life in Movies, the film’s title comes from his wife Frankie, who connected the story up to an old folk song of the same title. This of course became the film’s theme as well. The money stanza:

I know where I’m going
And I know who’s goes with me
I know who I love
But the de’il knows who I’ll marry




LouiseBrooks theme byThemocracy