Sunday, 9 January 2011

Powell & Pressburger #5. 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945)

Roger Livesey and Wendy Hiller in 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945)

One of Powell & Pressburger's lesser-known efforts, 'I Know Where I'm Going!' was filmed inbetween the duo's first critical and commercial flop, the brilliant A Canterbury Tale (1944), and their celebrated celestial romance A Matter Of Life And Death (1946), and has since been disregarded by fans and critics alike. Telling the story of an ambitious young woman, Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), who finds love on the remote Scottish island of Mull, the film finds its directors on more intimate form than usual, scaling down for a simple tale of boy meets girl, which they penned in less than a week. It's a significantly less interesting feature than its aforementioned bookends, and being wedged between the two has done it no favours, but this is actually a charming and beautifully shot little film, lensed by A Canterbury Tale DP Erwin Hillier...

A descendant of the German Expressionists, Hillier cut his teeth working for Weimar master Fritz Lang (M, 1931), before moving to Britain and collaborating with Hitchcock on Waltzes From Vienna (1934), an uncharacteristic musical from the master of suspense. Through working at Gaumont's Shepherd's Bush studio Hillier was introduced to Michael Powell, who recruited him for The Archers in '44. The DP's experience with darkness and shadows proved oddly perfect for 'I Know Where I'm Going!', which was closer to his experience with Lang than might have initially been expected. Due to a stage commitment on the West End, Roger Livesey wasn't able to travel to Scotland, and all of his scenes were shot at a studio in Denham, Buckinghamshire. What's really remarkable about Hillier's photography, considering that he never used a light meter, is that the transition between location and studio is seamless, and he manages to create an entirely consistent atmosphere. A key scene in the film finds Joan, Torquil (Livesey) and Kenny (Murdo Morrison) attempting to cross from the Isle Of Mull to Kiloran, where our protagonist is to be married. A foreboding black mist forms and swirls over the water, and the sequence - cloaked in darkness - is nail-biting, eventually building to a whirlpool disaster. We're pitted right into the middle of the danger, feeling ever bitter torrent of wind and rogue wave as the blackness draws ever nearer. No easy feat considering that it was shot on a sound stage. Other sequences impress - notably an early dream where Joan imagines herself marrying a giant corporation, and the overlapping cycle of images (machinery pumping away; a train passing under a mountain) recalls both Lang's Metropolis (1927) and Eisenstein's Stachka (1925).

Outside of Hillier's dazzling technical achievements, the performances are all terrific. Hiller excels as Webster in one of her earliest performances, and despite the difficulties of the character - her stubbornness and self-importance - the actress imbues her with warmth, ensuring that she's easy to root for. The original casting for Torquil was James Mason, but after he refused to "live rough" on the island, Livesey was cast, and all for the better. The actor lost 20lbs for the role, giving himself a younger, fresher look - ironic for the fact that he was never required to set foot on the island. Despite fantastic turns from the leads, the relationship is not quite developed enough to land the cosy ending, but Powell & Pressburger's natural dialogue flows beautifully, and the actors hit on unwritten subtleties that add depth to individual moments. The film isn't perfect, but it's certainly more than the stopgap between two masterworks, and for that fact it deserves wider recognition. It's strikingly photographed - almost like a hymn to the landscape - and I'd highly recommend giving it a chance. A romantic trip to the Highlands doesn't sound that bad now, does it?

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