Monday, May 19, 2008


As my recent immersion in the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger continues, I finally got around to seeing I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), thanks in part to the extreme indulgence of my local public library, which has not yet set the collection agencies on me for having the disc now for over a month. Each new Powell/Pressburger experience makes me want to immediately cement the movie in question permanently in my top 100—it has been so for my first encounters with A Canterbury Tale, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and even, Laurence Olivier’s out-rrrrageous French-Canadian accent notwithstanding, 49th Parallel. And now so it is with I Know Where I’m Going!, a film of such magic and romanticism and humor and feel for the texture of life on the Scottish isles that even Local Hero, upon which it surely was an influence, must finally take a small step to the side in my heart. (Up next: Black Narcissus.)

Young Joan Tucker (played with a lilting mixture of wistful longing and cheerful entitlement by Wendy Hiller) has always known what she’s wanted in life, and we meet her as she sets off on to fulfill yet another ambition—to be married to a rich industrialist on in a remote island castle off the Scottish coast. Arriving in a seaside town where the island of Kiloran, her destination, is close enough to be glimpsed through the coastal evening fog, she ends up stranded because of inclement weather and forced to wait out the time until she can make the journey across the water in the company of the British naval officer (played with his customary lightness and unwavering charm by Roger Livesey) on whose property her wedding is to take place. As each day passes, and the strange beauty of the Scottish countryside, its abandoned castles hiding legends and curses within their walls, continues to cast its spell, Joan must face the realization that for the first time she may not have a strong notion of where she intends life to take her. She becomes swept up, helpless, like a boat in a dangerous squall, cast about toward a destiny that may hold love and its attendant magic in a completely unexpected place.

The Powell and Pressburger touch is feather-light here, which may lead some to feel the movie hasn’t the gravity of Blimp, or as successful an engagement with the curious mysticism of the folktale as did Canterbury. I Know Where I’m Going! was shot on the Isle of Mull, and yet given the natural opportunity to exploit the surrounding beauty of the location, the movie never so much as threatens to succumb to the vagaries of the picture-postcard tourist travelogue. Instead, Powell and Pressburger infuse it with a gorgeous unaffected beauty through their sensitivity to the ethnographic beauty and mystery of the setting. The film becomes a transcendent mystery of local color and romantic longing powered by directorial details so slight as to seem inconsequential, yet so cumulatively powerful as to be undeniable. At one point as Joan lies on her bed, prayerfully begging God to cease the gale that prevents her from making the trip to Kiloran, she reflects on a local woman’s advice to count the beams on her bedroom ceiling so as to ensure a positive answer to her petition. As she looks up, Powell and Pressburger give us a beautiful pattern of lamplight cast on the ceiling as if to suggest the parting of the clouds and the coming of the sun, and then just a beat longer to realize that the ceiling has no beams. And once Joan, in the company of that naval officer and a young local boy, finally does set out for Kiloran, the directors evoke the terrifying immediacy of the ill-advised journey by amplifying its disorienting possibilities within hoary and well-familiar rear-projection techniques to spectacular, nauseating effect.

A great romance that helped to create the sturdy template that modern movies have repeatedly bastardized and trivialized, I Know Where I’m Going! has, 63 years after its release, the capacity to thrill a modern audience jaded by overexposure to the likes of Kate Hudson and Matthew McConnaughey. Hiller and Livesey (fast emerging as one of my favorite screen presences, despite his superficial resemblance to Craig Kilborn) bring blithe good humor and layers of meaning to the simplest gestures-- like the exchange of a cigarette or a glance across a crowded dinner table-- that would likely drive most actors into fits of envy. And directors Powell and Pressburger create for them a landscape charged with historical and emotional resonance that is fully worthy to frame and reflect the earthbound, yet splendidly flushed power of their story.


Greg said...

Damn you Cozzalio! Now I can't make good on my threat to not comment. You know I love Powell and Pressburger ( or you should by now ).

I saw this before I saw Blimp. It was my first ever encounter with Roger Livesey and he immediately became one of my favorite actors. When I finally saw Blimp I was, to put it mildly, astonished by his performance. My god, it's (Blimp) one of the most complete and profound performances in all of cinema.

Anyway back to this film, I love the whole look and feel. I love the idea of nature trapping them, keeping them at bay (literally) so that no matter what determination, no matter what drive you have, you are humbled and forced to surrender, to let go. What a brilliant movie.

I'm finishing up the editing on a lengthy montage I've been working on and Powell and Pressburger movies fit in prominently, their visuals providing so much opportunity for expression.

The Mysterious Ad[ B)e;ta]m.a.x. said...

Your love for Wendy Hiller should start to approximate what you've got going with Roger Livesey if you watch Pygmalion (1938), another Criterion British goodie, even if not a Powell/Pressburger. I Know Where I'm Going is certainly a masterpiece.

bill said...

Damn it, I have so many of their movies either in my Netflix queue or saved on my DVR, and I really need to start catching up.

Hey, did you guys know that I won the Criterion DVD of "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" in an on-line game?? Because I did!

Greg said...

Well I certainly knew about it - Since I awarded it to you. I already have a couple of ideas for two more games in the next few months.

And Editor A: I love Hiller in pretty much anything but she charmed me to no end in Pygmalion. Later in her career she was superb in her small role in A Man For All Seasons as well.

bill said...

I know YOU knew, Jonathan. I just wanted to brag.

NateDredge said...

There is simply nothing remotley like a Powell/Pressburger film, they are just hypnotic.

The Siren said...


and Black Narcissus next! You ARE having a wonderful time, aren't you?

I know how you feel. I just saw Cluny Brown.

If Kevin Brownlow (I think) says we aren't laughing the way we used to, we also aren't falling in love the way we used to.

WelcometoLA said...

Oh, I love Cluny Brown. Haven't thought of that movie in years.

And, Dennis, you must see Stairway to Heaven.

bill said...

On my DVR, I have "The Edge of the World", "Age of Consent", and "Pursuit of the Graf Spee". These last two are apparently not seen too often, although I think I heard that Criterion might be doing "Age of Consent". I'd never heard of "Pursuit of the Graf Spee" until I ran across it on TCM.

Mike Doc said...

If I could ever whittle down a 'favorite film' list to a manageable number, Black Narcissus would hold one of the top spots. I hope you share your thoughts on it, Dennis. There's nothing I love more than a good Archers appreciation.

I have pretty much the same reaction to P&P films as you -- the feeling that they weren't capable of turning in less than stellar work. It's been a while, but I remember appreciating the abstractness of the conclusion of 'I Know Where I'm Going' was more about ineffable feeling than spelling out or summarizing any theme, no?

Brian Doan said...

P&P are fantastic, aren't they? I watched everything of theirs I could get my hands on one summer month a few years back, and it was a really transcendent viewing experience. My favorite is probably THE RED SHOES, but I love GOING, too (Livesey is to P&P what Joel McCrea was to Preston Sturges-- the best actorly vehicle for their style), and I really can't wait until the criterion DVD of THE SMALL BACK ROOM comes out this summer-- it's one of their most underrated films.

Anonymous said...

I've always wanted to see this and now I must!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Jonathan: Livesey and Blimp were a revelation to me. I only first saw the film a couple of years ago, and then revisited it again a couple of months ago, and it strikes me as near perfect. Somebody somewhere that I read described it as the most romantic movie ever made; I would agree with that, though even that kind of praise seems restrictive. I'll just call it one of the best ever!

I'm looking forward to that montage!

Editor A: Pygmalion has been duly queued. Thanks for the recommend. It's funny, but I think the first time I ever saw Wendy Hiller was in Murder on the Orient Express... !

Bill: I heard of your good fortune. You'll not be so lucky next time...

NateDredge: I am 100% in agreement. My wife just worked on the upcoming Criterion DVD for The Small Back Room and she said it was superb. I can't wait!

Campaspe: I saw Black Narcissus Monday night, and yes, I'm pretty much in a blissful state about the movies I've seen and the P/P (plain ol' P) movies I've yet to see. And to add to the bliss, both my eight and five-year-old daughters were hit with kiddie insomnia Monday night when they got a whiff of Daddy watching a movie in the living room, so in an attempt to lull them to sleep I offered to let them watch Black Narcissus with me. Instead of getting dozy, they were completely enthralled! Never underestimate the capacity of smart young children to respond to a good story gorgeously told!

I love that quote, by the way. And I love Cluny Brown too, though it has been a good 20 years since I've seen it.

Larry: Speaking of Cluny Brown, there's a excellent article on Jennifer Jones available online in the new issue of Film Comment that you might like.

I once was doing a film cataloging project for this guy up in Oregon who was the creator of a very popular show on Oregon Public Broadcasting called Matinee at the Bijou. He had vaults and vaults full of old 16mm film-- trailers, shorts, features, industral films, what have you-- and it was my job to screen it all and evaluate the condition of the prints. One morning I came across what looked to be a gorgeous print of Stairway to Heaven which I threaded up immediately. Unfortunately it turned out to be severely and randomly bowdlerized and was in no way a good way to first see the movie. I've been looking for it ever since-- it seems that the region-free player may get yet another workout.

Mike Doc: There did seem to me to be a theme in operation here of man as a diminished creature in the face of and against the force of Nature, even at its most benevolent (that very lovely and loud waterfall next to that phone booth, for example, or the way in which what seems a curse enforced by Nature turns out to be a blessing). But IKWIG is most definitely about ineffable feeling as well. It is one of the most emotional-feeling movies I've ever seen.

Brian: As I said above, my wife highly recommends The Small Back Room. And I am going to admit now that I have never seen The Red Shoes, but have never been as keen on seeing it as I am now in the afterglow of Black Narcissus and the spectacular imagery created by Jack Cardiff.

Christian: I wonder, is it too much to hope for a P&P double bill at the New Beverly in the near future?