With “I Know Where I’m Going!” we yammerers are already through half of Powell & Pressburger’s six entries on the Sight & Sound list. But with our chronological approach that’s hardly surprising, given that the duo scored a list-worthy movie a year for six consecutive years. “I Know Where I’m Going!” is something of a departure from the previous films we have discussed, if only because it is much more straightforward and fast-paced than the epic Colonel Blimp or the genial A Canterbury Tale, but it is not without a serious dash of whimsy and visual flair — hallmarks of those earlier films. The story follows Joan Webster, an ambitious woman who has been working to rocket up the social ladder since she was a toddler. She is about to be married to a wealthy industrialist about twice her age, and heads up to the Scottish Hebrides islands for the ceremony. But stormy weather waylays her and throws her in the company of Torquil MacNeil, a Royal Navy officer and Scottish laird of little fortune. Well, you can probably guess the rest of the story, but what “I Know Where I’m Going!” lacks in unpredictability it more than makes up for with excellent humor, beautiful cinematography, and a playful surrealist streak that makes the most of its fairytale setting among the peaks and heather.
J. – Three Powell & Pressburger movies, three big winners. I really enjoyed this movie a great deal, and feel like in many ways that this is the sort of thing that romantic comedies should aspire to be. I say that not so much for the romance or the comedy aspects — important as both are to the form — but rather the idea of taking chances and creating a product that is cinematic and artful as well as romantic and funny. And I’m sure we’ll get to all that, but it perhaps makes the most sense to start with the main focus of every such film: the guy and the gal who will get together in the end.
This movie is ultimately about Joan, played with prickly primness by Wendy Hiller, but I’m going to go with Roger Livesey first, if only because I loved him so much in Colonel Blimp. I thought he was marvelous in this role as well. He has spectacular comedic timing and a winking playfulness that was perfect for the character of Torquil MacNeil. Because Torquil is meant to be the sort of character that teaches the heroine a lesson, it would have been easy for him to be preachy, disapproving, or overly strident. I think it is to the film’s great credit that the character is too easygoing — and tactful — to ever behave in such a way — he gets far more mileage out of sidelong glances and wry asides. And Livesey’s performance is also blessed with a casual charm that allows the character to rub elbows with the common folk and the upper crust with equal ease. Even when Torquil loses his temper over Joan’s attempt to pay off the ferryman’s assistant to set off in bad weather, he doesn’t become an instrument of anger so much as concern. Reading back over what I’ve just written, it makes it sound like he’s a rather tranquilized presence, but that is hardly the case, as the character is quite buoyant and determined, which makes for an appealing mix of traits in a leading man. I know you liked Livesey in this as well, S., but you weren’t so keen on Wendy Hiller. Care to get into your reasons a bit?
S. – I thought the character of Joan Webster was a compelling one and Wendy Hiller was okay in the role. However, alongside the charismatic Livesey I didn’t really believe them as a couple. Especially when you factor in the vibrant Catriona (Pamela Brown) who has far more screen appeal than the leading lady. I can understand that Joan’s refinement in contrast to the earthy, outspoken locals may be what sets her apart for Torquil and that the sudden indecision for a character that has been styled as a bulldozer headed towards her goal may have a paralysing effect. It’s just that the moments between Joan and Torquil that I would expect to be buzzing with tension seem rather mild. I couldn’t help but wonder what an actress like Katherine Hepburn would have brought to the role. For someone so aggressive in having things go to plan I felt that the source of her angst was internalised to the point of being a nonevent. I have to add a little praise to yours, J., for Livesey’s Torquil. Not only did he seem perfectly natural in his dealings with the many and varied town folk, his disposition towards Joan always showed respect for the difficult position she found herself in and complete trust in her to make the right decision. She absolutely picked the right guy.
J. – I don’t quite agree with your assessment of Wendy Hiller’s performance, S., but before I get into that I want to discuss this business of the “right guy”. Because this is one of the things that I really like best about this film. It is rare for a romantic comedy to not feature a love triangle — it’s not so much that there is just a “right guy” but that there must also be a “wrong guy” (or gal, depending on the film). Certainly that element is present in this film, but what is unique about the love triangle is that you never once see the “wrong guy” at any point. What a fantastic idea!
I often feel bad for the “wrong” guy or gal in romantic comedies because their gravest sin is usually that they are bit stuffy, whereas the “right” guy or gal is so much more fun to be around — but probably can’t balance a checkbook. It’s hardly an endorsement for sensible lasting relationships. But by limiting Joan’s fiance to a single short-wave radio conversation, we have no opportunity to explore the man except by the statements made by other characters in the film. And this leads to some wonderfully awkward scenes in which people are bad-mouthing Sir Robert Bellinger without realizing that they are talking to the woman he is about to marry. It also allows us access to the man’s vanity without making the character into some sort of caricature of upper crust snobbery, or judging him based on his physical appearance (we already know he is much, much older than Joan). But more importantly it opens the door for class-conscious humor that would be impossible in Sir Robert’s presence, as the man would never associate with the colorful Scottish locals that enliven every corner of the film. So I think it ultimately serves to strengthen Torquil’s claim to being the “right man” because he is able to take up that mantle without us being able to actually compare him outright to the “wrong man” — Torquil stands almost entirely on his own merits.
But does Joan merit Torquil? — that is a bit tougher. I rather enjoyed Hiller’s performance as Joan. I think it would have been very easy for the Joan character to be as grandiose as her dreams of wealth and social standing, but I think Hiller’s performance was very much the right way to go. She is proper in her single-mindedness, as befits a woman looking to marry into the titled gentry, but she has also been thrown for a loop as her plans unravel right at the goal line. And the awkwardness Hiller gives her character throughout the film befits a woman who’s playbook has been torn up among a group of Gaelic whirlybirds — she’s stepped into a world that she had never accounted for and is scared that she is enjoying it too much. I agree with you that this would have been a brilliant part for Katherine Hepburn, and actually thought that to myself while we were watching the movie — but the mere fact that Hiller’s performance put Hepburn in my mind has gotta mean it had something to it. I suppose the main flaw with the film is that Livesey’s attraction to Joan doesn’t really make much sense, as she is a deeply flawed character at the start of the film. And though she may have been worth loving by the end, she wasn’t at the beginning — but who am I to argue with the inner workings of Torquil MacNeil, Laird of Kiloran!?
S. – Rules of attraction aside, I think we can agree that “I Know Where I’m Going!” is a visual treat. It is shot with the reverence for the British landscape that has been a theme of the Powell and Pressburger films we have watched thus far. The location in the Western Isles of Scotland is visually spectacular and it is shown to great effect as the story unfolds. While such a location demands to be put to good use by any self-respecting filmmakers there is also the surprising addition of a surrealist touch woven into random points of the narrative. This unusual tactic is used lightly, adding a fairy-tale quality, and suggests that the unlikely may be possible even for a character as sure and determined as Joan. The most outstanding moment of these flourishes for me was the tartan hills as Joan’s train passes from England into Scotland, completely unexpected and absolutely charming. It also shows the naivety of our heroine. She is fiercely following her detailed itinerary towards her intended marriage on a remote Scottish island that she believes her husband-to-be owns, yet her knowledge of her destination is utterly simplistic. Me thinks someone may not really know where she is going…
J. – The location shooting in the Hebrides is wonderful, and even more of an achievement when you realize that Roger Livesey never once made it out on location for the entirety of the film, as he was attached to a play in London at the time. So the filmmakers did a bang-up job of keeping the character in that enchanted setting even though they didn’t actually have the actor.
I also liked the surrealist touches to the film, although I wouldn’t say they always use it lightly. The scene where Joan dreams of her impending marriage while on the train to Scotland is a riot of super-imposed images made all the more trippy by being seen through the shiny plastic cover of her wedding gown. That’s an insane dream sequence and one that has the benefit of divorcing Scotland from the grind of London and establishing the land as something apart and fairy-tale like — it in many ways is the equivalent of the transition from Kansas to Oz in The Wizard of Oz. But as much as I loved that sequence, the best surreal elements for me were those small ones that you mentioned — the black-and-white rainbow, a house teeming with massive dogs, the swirling sea of the Corryvreckan whirlpool, the fact that Petula Clark is in the film as a child. But for me the standout image of the film was the telephone box next to a raging waterfall that drowns out most any attempt at conversation. It’s an excellent joke and indicative of the clever and playful humor of the film. And I would argue that the fairy tale/surreal vibe extends itself to beyond the look and setting of the film to the eccentric characters.
S. – Quirky characters abound, keeping the mood upbeat and entertaining as poor Joan wrestles with her conflicted head and heart. The most extreme example being the eccentric falconer Colonel Barnstaple (C.W.R. Knight) who is on a mission to train a golden eagle for hunting. Despite his talent for calamity Torquil always treats the Colonel with the utmost respect, even as he clashes with trees, wildlife and waterfalls. The scene where the Colonel explains to Torquil that the eagle is also named Torquil and attempts to demonstrate how well trained the bird is in the living room of Catriona’s house is performed with perfect sincerity by Knight, making it all the funnier. All of the little touches in both the visual effects and myriad characters combine to create a detailed and engrossing world. I like your analogy with Oz, J.; there is very much a feeling of having entered an alternate reality. So easily this could have gone wrong but Powell and Pressburger have shown they are adept at spinning a rich and nuanced story out of the seemingly ordinary. It leaves me astounded that I had no idea at all of the work of this dynamic duo, it is discoveries like these that make trekking the depths of the Sight & Sound list so rewarding.
J. – The characters — particularly the Colonel — are indeed quirky, but I think that sincerity you noted is very important here. It certainly improves the humor, as you said, S., but it also gives a measure of credibility and humanity to characters that could easily become twee Scottish stereotypes. But that rarely happens here, and it is done through little touches and connections among the characters that make the film seem surprisingly grounded in its fancies. A good example is the working class party that Joan and Torquil visit to escape from the dull friends of Joan’s fiance. The party is full of whimsical stereotypes, but little touches like the crowd shushing down the drunk singer in the corner and the old man getting primed to give a speech and then demuring at the last second are both funny and quite real in an otherwise chaotic sequence. But more to the point, it is Torquil who latches onto these little moments and makes honest connections with the people around him. Without Torquil around Joan would probably have only the seen the Tartan stereotypes — and you get the impression her fiance might not even notice them at all. And that, as much as any attraction to Torquil, is what causes the sea change in Joan. So yeah, Torquil is the right man and Powell & Pressburger are the right filmmakers for finding more than jokes and scenery at the storm-whipped fringe of Britain.