Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, together known as The Archers, were rapidly growing to prominence in the British film industry by the time they made I Know Where I'm Going! in 1945. In a relatively rare move, then and now, the duo shared written, produced and directed by credit, though they each came from varied backgrounds of individual accomplishment. Powell had started working with Rex Ingram on silent productions and Pressburger wrote his first film in 1930. World War II brought them together, and film history would never be the same.
Pressburger was fleeing the Nazi rise to power and Powell was becoming cinematically involved with the British war effort. Their first collaboration was The Spy in Black (1939), a film starring Conrad Veidt, who was also getting out of Germany while the getting was good. The years that followed saw the release of such classics as The Lion Has Wings (1939), 49th Parallel (a film made in 1941, set in Canada, and at least partially designed to help nudge American involvement in the war), One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), a marvelous picture that caused considerable ire amongst the British military class due to its humorous depiction of wartime pomp and regulation. Just prior to I Know Where I'm Going! the two released A Canterbury Tale (1944), an ode to the people of the English countryside against the backdrop of war.
This penchant for the depiction of rural individuals and their natural surroundings was a major facet in The Archer’s output. Powell especially became enamored with the Scottish Isles, where most of I Know Where I'm Going! was shot. In this film though, the locale is much more than just a setting. It serves a pivotal role in terms of narrative and characterization, acting as a catalyst for the story’s unfolding and informing the mind, body and soul of the individuals presented.
The film stars Joan Webster as Wendy Hiller, an ambitious English woman who is set to marry a wealthy industrialist. She’s brash and has always been a self-determined and confident young lady. Her sense of certainty is thwarted, however, when she arrives at the island of Mull, hoping to board a ship bound for the island Kiloran where her beau awaits. The weather and the natural elements of the area do not cooperate though, and it puts a kink in her well-developed plans. With harsh conditions plaguing the region she has no way of getting across the water. She is stuck in a location and with people that are far removed from her background and her intentions. These are simple, unassuming and unpretentious people. They are careless in the best sense of the word, and they live their life unabated by the negatives of contemporary society and urban mores. While there, Joan meets Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), a naval officer and pillar of the community. He’s at home there and his home is very much a part of his character, in ways that she only gradually discovers. He quickly develops a fancy for the girl, but she is still set on her approaching wedding. As obstacles get in her way, she begins to change … in demeanor, thoughts, and feelings. She becomes less sure of where she’s going.
This is a magnificent looking film. Powell, who operated in the role of director within the duo, captures the location with great care and realism; it’s unadorned by any sort of artificiality, and this gives the imagery of nature’s fury a very strong sense of being a force to truly be reckoned with. Simultaneously, this attention to detail also coveys the beauty of the scenery: trees, grass, the wind, the water, everything vigorous and in perpetual motion.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was The Archers’ first color film, and a superb Technicolor picture it was, but it’s hard to imagine I Know Where I'm Going! in anything other than black and white. Its ethereal presentation of a place untouched by time seems all the more palpable in shades of grey. (Likewise, it’s unthinkable to picture some of their later works – the masterful Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) – in anything but vibrant color.) Another great color film, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), which was actually shot in black and white and color, was the film Powell originally wanted to make at this time, but he could not apparently obtain the Technicolor cameras. I Know Where I'm Going! is by no means a paltry substitute.
In terms of performances, it’s Roger Livesey who for me carries the film. Livesey had to replace Laurence Olivier in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and the result was a simply astounding depiction of Clive Candy (the eponymous “Colonel Blimp”) as he ages from a strapping young man to an overweight, balding older gentleman. Here too his distinct voice and pure screen presence is something special and unique. An interesting bit of trivia found on imdb.com notes that “James Mason was originally cast as Torquil but declined when told he would have to ‘live rough’ in the islands. Ironically Roger Livesey never went to the islands because he was in a West End show at the time. A double was used for long shots and all close ups are shot in the studio.” This is a fascinating detail to keep in mind while watching the film, and it just goes to show how accomplished all involved were as filmmakers.
Powell and Pressburger would continue to work together until I’ll Met by Moonlight in 1957, before going their separate ways. The latter continued to write novels and screenplays (Pressburger would write They're a Weird Mob, which Powell directed in 1966.), and the former would make a handful of features, most prominently and notoriously his second solo effort Peeping Tom (1960), a great, great film that in many ways ended his career due to the ensuing scandal it caused.
The work of these two tremendously talented individuals was on the verge of being forgotten, despite their acclaimed films of the 1940s and 1950s, when younger filmmakers in the 1970s began to rally behind them and started calling attention to what were steadily being reevaluated as cinematic masterworks. The driving force behind this was Martin Scorsese, who was taken by The Archers’ films from a young age. He and others, like Francis Ford Coppola, gave new life to the output of Powell and Pressburger. Even if they never made films as good as their earlier productions, the fresh attention and the consequent reassessment of their work is incredibly significant and thankfully continues today. Emeric Pressburger passed away in 1988 and Michael Powell died two years later. He left behind widow Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor and another tireless champion of her late husband’s movies.
The Criterion Collection, that God-send to movie lovers, has treated many of these films exceptionally well, with several available on gorgeous Blu-ray and DVD transfers, all with the usual plethora of bonus features that only heighten what are already remarkable cinematic achievements.