Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Writer: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Cinematographer: Erwin Hillier
Producer: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, and George R. Busby
by Jon Cvack
The deeper I get into Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s filmography, the more I smile that my first introduction from the guy was with Peeping Tom (1960) during film school; as the majority of us who hadn’t seen it assumed it was the twin movie rip off to Psycho (1960). Years later, when I finally saw the film I was shocked at how good it was; not at all mirror to Psycho but rather its own story and style that would predate most slasher films.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are possibly two of the most underrated filmmakers in the history of cinema; at least relative to their position in history. I struggle to think of another popular filmmaker(s) of comparable vision that has been completely forgotten.* I’m near wrapping out their available filmography - having written about The Thief of Baghdad (1940) and its incredible effects, A Matter of Life and Death's (1946) profound fantasy and use of color, and wanting to return to their two most famous works, The Red Shoes (1948) and Black Narcissus (1947). The pair are a mid-century merge between Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.
I Know Where I’m Going! starts off with a bang as we’re introduced to a fiercely independent young girl, Joan Webster, who from the earliest age has been able to get exactly what she wants. In a rapid montage, we discover this ranged from expensive pure silk stockings to marrying one of England’s wealthiest citizens who’ll help provide the extravagant life she’s been searching for. Out of the gate, the credits are integrated into the set. The opening shot tracks a crawling infant, ending on her crib where the first set of crew is listed out. Later it pulls back from a bunch of girls exiting a school and ends on a wooden milk van parked on the street, with the second set of the crew listed on the side in a typeface for a traveling medicine man; the wagon moves forward and the camera shifts to the back, where the production designer is displayed.
From there, she meets her father and a swanky nightclub where she announces her marriage to Robert Barringer, the chief executive of one of the world’s largest chemical companies. The father is shocked, as Robert is his age; realizing that his daughter has grown to covet wealth and power above all else.
Just when you think it’s finally slowing down, she heads to a train, where it feels as though the story gets injected with a massive dose of cocaine, in which the filmmakers intercut between all the train mechanics, a miniature train set, and a bunch of cross fades from her fantasy wedding to Chemical Industries to have everyone she knows wading to her every need; until finally she arrives at the seaside town of Kiloran, which was filmed on the actual Scottish isle of Colonsay where she has to journey across sea to Berringer’s smaller, private island. Unfortunately, a storm rises up which prevents her from leaving.
She ends up a local inn where she meets naval officer Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey; who I saw in both A Matter of Life and Death and A Life of Colonel Blimp (1943)); an attractive man who’s also trying to get to Kiloran for furlough who invites Joan to stay at a nearby inn. There she meets an eccentric and retired hawk trainer, who’s just one of many unique individuals from the community.
The next day, the rain has died, but a heavy gale is blowing, creating unsafe conditions. Torquil gives Joan a tour of the town; ending up at the legendary Moy Castle (an actual place) which Joan wants to enter while Torquil refuses; explaining that a terrible curse has been applied to the current “Laird” of the castle (Laird being the Scottish owner of a large estate); then revealing himself to be the Laird of Kiloran, which he’s simply leasing to the Berringer. The two continue to spend more time together, all while Joan maintains her mission to make it across the sea.
Perhaps the best film to compare this to is John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), and its gorgeous photography across the Irish countryside. Captured by cinematographer Erwin Hillier’s chilling cinematography, in which he often shot the subjects in silhouette against the partly cloudy skies, there’s a chilling authenticity to the film; part Ingmar Bergman, part David Lean romance, and part Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963); serving as a type of existential tale about whether a woman battling her attraction to money and power as a more humble life’s presented as the alternative; albeit with someone she loves.
I had seen the comparison to Hitchcock’s The Birds while trying to find who played the hawk trainer and it’s perfectly fitting. The story of a woman stranded on an island, as though nature is deliberating keeping her there to prove some grander point. I was left thinking of how great an adaptation this would make if Emmanuel Lubezki had the camera; even if all else was kept the same. It skirts that fine line between romance, gothic fairytale, and allegory per the likes of “A Christmas Carol”. It contains images that will forever be burned in my mind; of Joan visiting the seaside, desperate to get across for fear of what she might do with Torquil; of the moment when she finally gets out to sea after exploiting a young man who doesn’t know any better and they end up at the Corryvreckan whirlpool (also a real place) which is truly one of the most incredible natural events I’ve ever seen integrated into a narrative.
So many of these pieces add up to one of my favorite films I’ve yet to see from Powell and Pressburger; the kind of film that makes me want to revisit their first films. In the behind the scenes featurette, Martin Scorsese explains how hard it was to see this film initially and soon it became a cult hit even before there was such a phrase. It leaves me wondering how a filmmaker like Powell and Pressburger have fallen off the radar so heavily. When we look back on 1940s/50s/60s cinemas greatest filmmakers, their names might pop up here and there, but it’s often reserved for the second tier of obscurity. From all I’ve seen, their stuff is comparable to Hitchcock; trading the thriller for a fantastical realism. With A Matter of Life and Death now coming out on a Criterion, I’m confident that they’ll one day earn their rightful place; up there with Bergman, Fellini, or John Ford.
*Henry Hathaway might fit the bill, but it’s more for his contributions to the western rather than cinema’s more general accomplishments.
BELOW: Not much on the YouTube front, but here's a taste of the photography
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