Tag: Emeric Pressburger

The Red Shoes (1948)

The Red Shoes (1948)

Ballet and obsession go hand-in-hand in this beautiful, triumphant film

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: Anton Walbrook (Boris Lermontov), Marius Goring (Julian Craster), Moria Shearer (Victoria Page), Robert Helpmann (Ivan Boleslawsky), Léonide Massine (Grischa Ljubov), Albert Bassermann (Sergei Ratov), Ludmilla Tchérine (Irina Boronskaya), Esmond Knight (Livingstone Montague), Austin Trevor (Professor Palmer), Jean Short (Terry), Gordon Litmann (Ike), Eric Berry (Dimitri)

If there was a moment when “ballet” and “obsession” became synonymous in people’s minds, it might just have been the premiere of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. The founding text in the cult of en pointe, The Red Shoes mixes technicolour beauty and fairy-tale darkness with an elaborate meditation on the struggle to balance life and art. For many it’s the peak of The Archer’s cinematic artistry. While I don’t place it that high – I have too much fondness for the beauty of A Matter of Life and Death, enjoyment for the bonkers madness of Black Narcissus and too much respect for the pleasures of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – there is no arguing that this is vibrant, beautiful filmmaking, two masters firing on all cylinders.

The Red Shoes is the ballet battleground for the conflicting demands of three people. Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is a Diaghilevish impresario for whom everything is secondary to art, demanding complete obedience from his protégés. Julian Craster (Marius Goring) is a gifted young composer who values life and love over art. Between them is Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), graceful once-in-a-generation ballerina talent who wants to both dedicate herself to Julian but also dance herself into legend with Boris. These three will make and break alliances on and off tour, touring Craster’s Red Shoes about ballet shoes with a mind (and dance) of their own.

On its release The Red Shoes became the most successful British film ever released in America (it even topped the end-of-year box office chart). Its popularity added even greater momentum to the wave of Hollywood musicals that turned into a tsunami. Would Gene Kelly have had the guts to end An American in Paris with a fifteen-minute ballet if Powell and Pressburger hadn’t stuck a 17 minute one in the middle of The Red Shoes first? Where The Red Shoes differs from Hollywood musicals that pirouetted in its footsteps, was it darkness and surprising bleakness, it’s clear, cold-eyed look at the limits of opportunity and the dangers of following your dream.

Because Victoria Page – played with a great deal of honesty and affecting vulnerability by professional ballet dancer Moira Shearer – is severely damaged by doing so. Inveigling her way into Lermontov’s company (despite Lermontov’s distaste at her mother’s forceful pushiness) she proves her spurs by a sensational performance in a small-scale Swan Lake at the Mercury Theatre (dancing to a recording rather than a live band) and is parachuted into a leading role in Lermontov’s productions. Vicky dreams of leaving the sort of mark few do – but she’s also human, unsuited at heart to the fierce, all-consuming obsession Lermontov expects from his stars. Shearer makes her vulnerable, gentle, lacking the force of personality to resist peer pressure.

Pressure is what Lermontov trades in. Played with a vampiric intensity by Walbrook, Lermontov is pale, Germanic and frequently retreats behind sunglasses. He commands there is no God but art and that he alone is its unquestionable high priest. He holds court in his office, where his staff come and go, rotating around his every whim and opinion. He lurks in the shadows at the rear of the theatre during rehearsals, quietly passing judgement. Vicky’s predecessor is dismissed for daring to get married. And there is the constant expectation that should he ask you for a sacrifice, it should be made in seconds.

He doesn’t care for conflict. In fact, any disagreement is met with summary dismissal. It doesn’t matter how much he’s invested in you. As Julian Craster discovers to his cost. Goring does fine work as the enthusiastic young composer (even if he is clearly a little old for the role) who we are introduced to excitedly watching his professor’s new composition for Lermontov only to discover all the melodies are his. While Lermontov is reluctant to do anything to ensure Craster gains the credit for his work (a sign of his own need to control all patronage and praise) he takes Craster on, who proves himself no flash in the plan. But no amount of time invested in Craster matters when the young composer dares to fall in love with Vicky. And even worse, she dares to love him back.

Because love and a life outside of the dance isn’t part of the plan. These ideas are all captured in The Ballet of the Red Shoes, the piece Craster composes for Vicky (the preparation for which is the catalyst for their burgeoning love affair). Based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the dancing shoes that had a life of their own, it neatly encapsulates Vicky’s problem. As Lermontov says summing up the story, it’s the tale of shoes that at first delight a young woman and then literally dance her to death. The entire ballet, like the film, is a grim reminder of the horrific price all-sacrificing excellence in the arts can lead to.

It’s fitting that this story is placed at the heart of such a hugely beautiful and fascinating film. Powell and Pressburger’s film are virtually a by-word for technicolour beauty. Jack Cardiff excels himself here as a photographer (only a reluctance to give this Brit outsider an Oscar two years running surely prevented even his nomination). The Red Shoes is crammed with exquisite imagery, gorgeous photography and striking, unforgettable colours. Hein Heckroth’s sets are magisterial (and Oscar winning), not least in the staging of the ballot that dominates the centre of the film.

The ballet is filmed quite unlike any other dance sequences in films. Powell in many ways breaks the cardinal rules of shooting dances. The ballet is a combination of quick edits and intricate camera moves. It is defiantly non-realistic: despite the setting, it is clearly (with its use of slow motion, super-imposed images and effects like the red shoes lacing themselves onto Vicky’s feet) not a faithful theatrical staging but highly cinematic. It beautifully, subtly suggests that we are at a tipping point between reality and imagination, that Vicky’s identification with the lead role has partially shifted her perception of the whole piece into a fairy tale turned real.

Is that partly why the whole film feels like we are walking in her own personal Hans Christian Anderson story? With Julian as the romantic prince, the theatre as a mix of enchanted forest and mysterious castle – and Lermontov as the beast who may be a prince in disguise or the wolf dressed as granny. It leads into the finales tragic ending, which blurs the line between reality, imagination and trauma into an undefinable mass. Do those red shoes exert a terrible, profound power of Vicky she hardly understands? Or are they just physical representations of her own ability to choose between the demands placed on her?

The Red Shoes is in some ways a traditional melodrama, not to mention another fable of a woman being unable to have both career and family (in the way, of course, that a man can). It is also a slim story, and the ballet – impressive as it is – depends on your relationship to that artform to work or not (I confess I find it drags slightly). But it’s also full of delightful behind the scenes sequences, from rehearsals to design meetings with Albert Bassermann’s Germanic designer to Craster’s coaching of the orchestra.

Visually rapturous, its directed with a great deal of flair and sympathy from Powell who draws some superb performances from his cast of mostly professional dancers. Although Shearer has no real chemistry with Goring, her performance as Vicky is beautifully observed and highly sympathetic and The Red Shoes is blessed with a definitive performance from Walbrook who is powerfully, imposingly domineering as Lermontov. The Red Shoes may at time dress its melodramatic heart in a little too much on-the-nose artiness, but it is also a sensational, ravishing film that lingers as long in the memories as Vicky’s prodigious dance steps.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A pilot is stranded between Earth and…somewhere else in this brilliant romantic fantasy

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: David Niven (Peter David Carter), Roger Livesey (Dr Frank Reeves), Raymond Massey (Abraham Farlan), Kim Hunter (June), Marius Goring (Conductor 71), Robert Coote (Bob Trubshaw), Kathleen Byron (Officer Angel), Joan Maude (Chief Recorder), Abraham Sofaer (Judge/Surgeon), Richard Attenborough (Pilot)

In the final days of World War II, a plane glides across the Channel in flames. The crew has bailed out, leaving only their skipper behind. Unknown to them, he’s not got a parachute – and is facing a choice between jumping or crashing to certain death. With only moments left to live, when is there a better time to fall in love? Quoting poetry and embracing what life he can in his final moments, Peter Carter (David Niven) falls in love with American radio operator June (Kim Hunter), the last person he expects to talk to. It’s stirring, sweeping, hugely romantic – and then Peter jumps at 50,000 feet.

So that’s it, right? Wrong. Peter washes up on the shores of Britain, not dead and practically on June’s doorstep. Happy ending? Perhaps not: at the end of a huge escalator linking our world to another (maybe the next?) Peter was expected. His “conductor” (Marius Goring), a French fop executed during the Revolution, whose job it was to take his soul “up” lost him in the fog. Now a man who isn’t supposed to be alive is walking around on Earth falling in love. Can it be allowed? Or will Peter need to head up that staircase? Or is all of this in fact in Peter’s head, a product of a head injury diagnosed by Dr Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey)? Either way, Peter faces two trials: life-saving surgery on Earth and a tribunal in that other place to decide whether he stays on Earth or not.

When released in America, AMOLAD was renamed Stairway to Heaven – a title rightly hated by Michael Powell. Part of the magic – and there is a lot of magic realism here in the most beloved of all British filmic fables – is the film’s carefully measured ambiguity. The film superbly doesn’t give any answers. The two worlds are clearly, visually distinguished and when Goring’s Conductor and others descend to Earth to freeze time and converse with Peter, their appearance is always foreshadowed with the same symptoms (smells and headaches) Frank diagnoses as part of Peter’s condition.

The beauty of AMOLAD is how wonderfully gently it explores the struggle of two nations – here represented by Peter and June – to emerge from the trauma of war and return to everyday life. From a world where death lies around every corner – where your plane can plummet to fiery doom in moments – they must readjust to one of romantic picnics, amateur theatricals and games of table tennis. Peter’s struggle to survive his surgery is a beautiful metaphor for returning to a life full of hope, possibility and looking forward rather than backward.

It’s why the visual impact of the film is so important. “Heaven” is shot in crisp black-and-white. As the Conductor says when travelling down to Earth, “one is starved of Technicolor up there”. This Heaven is a place of peace, but also of bureaucratic efficiency. Arrival lounges are staffed with decent but practical Angels (Kathleen Bryon is marvellous as the first of these we meet – and there is a fabulous shot from Powell that frames her in front of a clock, making the edges of its face appear like a halo around her head). There are rules and paperwork – in fact a whole city of clerks and arrival lounges. What it doesn’t have is the warmth and passion – the colour – of Earth. Down here, everything is in luscious, gorgeous Technicolor. Up there life is restful, but monochrome.

Jack Cardiff’s photography of AMOLAD – combined with Powell’s astute visual eye – crafts one of the most ravishing films you’ll ever see. Blues, oranges and reds practically pour off the screen into your eyes. Filters add a golden hue to much of what we see. The ramshackle details of locations – Frank’s cluttered library with its piles of books, June’s country-house-base – see every single detail captured in painterly beauty, colours popping out. Only Peter’s surgery room feels like a bridge between ”Heaven” and Earth, cooler filters stressing their blues and cool icey whites.

This is what Peter is fighting to stay in. A world of colour, of joy and poetry. Perhaps “Heaven” is just his imagination of what the afterlife could be like. It resembles the military operations he has spent the last few years emersed in. It’s filled with the historical generations he taught at university. Familiar faces up there fight his corner and represent him at the great trial to decide his fate. His surgeon on Earth shares the face of his judge in “Heaven”. Powell and Pressburger don’t lean too far either way – it’s all gloriously left open to our imagination.

And who, in 1946, wouldn’t want to believe in a heaven as reassuringly welcoming as this. (On a side note it’s refreshing to see a film from the 40s that depicts such a racially diverse after life). One where all are equal and questions of colour and creed are left aside. “Heaven” is packed with soldiers from all across the world – and the sheer volume of uniforms up there reminds us of the trauma down here.

AMOLAD is all about the world we might decide to live in after the trauma of war. It’s also about forging lasting bonds between two nations bought together to fight. No one feels more English than David Niven: and AMOLAD is, arguably, his finest performance. He makes Peter a man of casual wit and lightly worn intelligence, but with hints of the burdens he has carried across years of war. He’s the best of us Brits – and now he has fallen in love with the best of America. June, wonderfully played by Kim Hunter, is practical, brave and grounded. Their love (and the life they could spend together) becomes the battleground at the heavenly trial.

On the one side: a prejudiced revolutionary American (played with gusto by Raymond Massey) – on the other the perfect embodiment of English decency. There could have been no better choice of actor for this than the glorious Roger Livesey. Livesey’s Frank Reeves becomes a mix of English eccentric, master surgeon and Prospero-like magus. It’s no coincidence that among his hobbies is a large camera obscura with which he observes events on his village streets with a protective, grandfatherly care. His study is lined with books, his knowledge is infinite and he is always open to Peter’s tales of heavenly staircases and visitations from mysterious conductors. Then as his advocate in “Heaven” it is he who has the clear sight and judgement to focus the jury not on what divides us, but what unites us – what makes us all human, not what drives us apart.

AMOLAD is about what brings us together. It’s open about the flaws of Britain – the first trial jury is awash with Boers, Indians and other victims of Empire – but also a celebration of its virtues. It celebrates the melting pot of America – the second trial jury is made-up of an incredibly diverse selection of American citizens – and is a hymn to personal freedoms. Farlan picks up on what divides Britain and America – cricket vs American dynamism – but what unites us is our desire for life. So what does it matter if Brits can be austere or Americans so brash they raid a coke dispenser on arrival in “Heaven”. We’re still cousins.

All this helps capture the film as a universal fable, of love being discovered in the magical boundaries between worlds (its no coincidence we see Midsummer Night’s Dream being rehearsed by an American cast under a British vicar). This is a quiet, decent struggle about emerging from the horrors of war into the chance of a new world of love. It’s a struggle for Peter and June that is both very personal and hugely universal.  Powell and Pressburger’s film captures this perfectly in a film that’s sublimely directed and never-endingly rich in dialogue and visuals. It perfectly offers up a universal fable that speaks to the heart. It’s perhaps why this is their most beloved – and finest – hour.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook are friends who war cannot divide in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: Roger Livesey (Clive Candy), Deborah Kerr (Edith Hunter/Barbara Wynne/Angela “Johnny” Cannon), Anton Walbrook (Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff), Ursula Jeans (Frau von Kalteneck), James McKechnie (Lt “Spud” Wilson), David Hutcheson (Hoppy), Frith Banbury (David “Baby Face” Fitzroy), Muriel Aked (Aunt Margaret), John Laurie (Murdoch), Roland Culver (Colonel Betteridge)

Is there a film that has better captured the curious state of being British than The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp? Could any other film makers than Powell and Pressburger take a doltish buffoon from newspaper comic strip, and turn him into a tragi-comic figure worth of Hamlet? Could any other film make a wartime propaganda film that features the most sympathetic depiction of the Germans anyone would see for decades to come? Winston Churchill was so scathing of the film that its US release was delayed for two years – and even then it was cut to ribbons. But then, I guess we knew already the guy wasn’t right about everything.

During the Blitz, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) is a retired Major-General and now a senior commander in the Home Guard. Ambushed in a Turkish bath on the eve of a training exercise (by young officers keen to follow the German example of effective pre-emptive strikes), Candy rages at their dismissal of him as a relic from yesteryear. In flashback, we see Candy’s entire life over the course of the rest of the film. The film charts his military cross, from the Boer War to World War One and his life-long friendship with German officer Theo Kretschar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), after both men are hospitalised after a 1902 duel over insults to the German military. Both men fall in love with the same woman, Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr) although Clive realises it far too late – and their friendship ebbs and flows over the next forty years.

Powell and Pressburger’s film is, of course, quite beautifully made. The film has that distinctively radiant technicolour look of their most successful works, but it works so well because Powell assembles the whole so wonderfully. Powell knows when to hold a shot and when to look away and his judgement is never wrong. In the duel where Clive and Theo meet (Theo has been randomly selected to fight), the camera at first covers the detail of the prep, then moves to an over-the-head shot as it begins, before pulling out of the gymnasium and away, gliding into a long shot with Berlin sprinkled with snow. Because after all, the actual fight is immaterial to the sense of this being one event in the tapestry of life – and the moment of real importance being the friendship that came from it.

Then, much later, Powell does the exact opposite, holding a shot with powerful, emotional, simplicity. It’s 1939 and Theo is trying to remain in England – his wife having passed away, his sons being lost to Nazism and this adopted country being far closer to his old Prussian ideals of duty and fairplay. In a heartbreakingly low-key, simple speech – just exquisitely delivered by Anton Walbrook – Powell lets the entire speech play out in a single take, giving the moment room to breathe and magnifying its impact enormously – not least by the background extra who switches from shuffling his papers to listening intently to this heartfelt appeal.

It’s this mastery of technique that makes the impact of the film so wonderful – and helps it to masterfully capture the changing of an entire nation. Other the film’s forty years the entire world changes utterly, from one of simple truths where right is right and evils are punished, to the morally complex world of World War Two, where bending the rules and playing dirty might be just what is needed to defeat enemies with no principles. 

Candy is a man of unshakeable morals and ideals, who does not believe ends justify means and is determined that fighting honourably for defeat is far better than victory at all costs. It’s an idea the film affectionately praises, at the same time it sadly shakes its head and admits that such ideals were for the last century not this one. These are ideas Theo has captured far sooner than Candy – and Candy’s tragedy, among his many virtues, is that he always fails until it is almost too late to understand the truth of the world around him (be that politically or romantically).

It doesn’t matter really though, because we always know Candy’s heart is in the right place. In a sublime performance by Roger Livesey, this is a man with an upper-class bombast and a paternalistic regard for his duty and for others. His country and the ideals of that country come first and foremost – but it’s not about pushing those home. He will console honourable foes – as he does with Theo after World War One – and when the battle is over will be the first to say by-gones are by-gones. The film he is in a way a somewhat ridiculously old-fashioned character – but he’s always well-meaning, decent and honourable.

Candy also has the tragedy tinged sadness of not knowing what he wants until it’s too late. He doesn’t realise his affections for Edith Hunter, until she and Theo are telling him of their engagement (although we the audience are already well aware that Edith had feelings for him), and the look of realisation of a deep and lasting love that will last his whole life, is fabulously conveyed by Livesey in a perfect reaction shot. Candy will eventually marry Edith’s near doppelganger, but this unspoken love will last his whole life – and form another bond between him and Theo. Which in itself is what we like to think is a quality the British have at their best.

Along with that British fair-play that is so important to him, it also settles in the friendship between Theo and Clive. A friendship unaffected by tragedy or war (or at least not for long) and which, despite years apart, Clive frequently returns to with all the warmth and openness they first shared. These are bonds of loyalty forged on the playing fields, that operate on unspoken feelings (for a portion of their friendship Theo can’t even speak English). 

These are also the ideas and principles that Clive keeps alive in himself, even while the world becomes ever more bleak around him. He’s a character that never loses his essential positivity and kindness. Deaths or disappointed love are met with regret and then losing yourself in sport (whole years are hilariously shown to pass by montages showing Clive’s hunting trophies appear on walls). But always that British idea of (as Churchill put it) “keep buggering on”, and not letting infinite sadnesses and disappointments undermine or define you.

Powell and Pressburger use all this to make Candy not a joke – as the Lieutenant in the film’s prologue sees him – but as a deeply sympathetic and real man. It’s a film also about our disregard for the old, our failure to ever imagine that they were young. The flashback structure fills in this story beautifully. All this, and it’s not even to mention Deborah Kerr’s superb performance as all three of the women in this story, each subtle commentaries on the other and her return throughout somehow representing the perfect ideals that Clive and Theo are living to. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is about understanding how the “rules” of British behaviour are underpinned by a deeper sadness it’s almost a duty to hide – and it understands that better than almost any other film.

Black Narcissus (1947)

Deborah Kerr leads a community of nuns struggling with temptations in the classic Black Narcissus

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: Deborah Kerr (Sister Clodagh), Sabu (Young General), David Farrar (Mr Dean), Kathleen Byron (Sister Ruth), Flora Robson (Sister Philippa), Jenny Laird (Sister Honey), Judith Furse (Sister Briony), Esmond Knight (Old General), Jean Simmons (Kanchi), May Hallatt (Angu Ayah)

In 1947, people hadn’t seen anything like Black Narcissus. Its triumphant technicolour was like nothing that had been made before – and watching it now on a brand new, shiny restoration, it’s still overwhelmingly impressive. Alongside this beautifully shot action, we have a storyline surprisingly modern in its acute psychology and questioning of the strengths and weaknesses of human nature.

Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is given leadership of a group of nuns in a remote Himalayan harem building converted into a nunnery. But the isolation of the mountains and the strange atmosphere of the harem bring out weaknesses in the characters of the nuns, leading to profound challenges to their spiritual and mental well-being – not least Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who becomes increasingly pre-occupied with local land captain Mr Dean (David Farrar).

Powell and Pressburger’s film is a brilliant, slightly hard to interpret, psychological gothic drama, a du Maurier-style sexually charged drama set in an exotic Indian location which the nuns struggle to understand. It’s a curious melange of scenes, often moving swiftly, sometimes only with narrow bridge scenes, meaning you soon get as lost in how much time has passed as the nuns themselves. Several key events take place off screen, and the native Indians are curious, unknowable and strangely intimidating in their distance and coolness.

All this is to help build the audience into feeling as unsettled as the characters themselves. It’s a film about the struggles between expression and repression. The two principal nuns – Sisters Clodagh and Ruth – both show elements of this. Both are drawn towards the earthy, manly but still patrician Dean, but both handle these emotions in very different ways – one by denying those feelings, another by trying to embrace them. All of this takes place in a distancing and intoxicating environment, where the convention rules of life seem suspended.

For Sister Clodagh, Dean serves as a bridge back to her own frustrated romantic feelings for an old flame – whose failure to propose guided her towards taking the veil – and elements of her warmer persona (witnessed by us in flashback). But Clodagh resolves never to make herself a slave to these feelings, and these moments of remembrance seem to make her cling all the more to her order – even while the film suggests that it is a strange mixture of pride, insecurity and fear as well as faith that motivates her.

By contrast, Sister Ruth – already acknowledged by the Mother Superior as not an obvious choice for the sisterhood – increasingly loses her grip first on her faith, then sanity, as she struggles with the feelings she clearly has for Dean. This quiet obsession has built up in her mind into representing all the desires for freedom and independence she feels while in the order. Where Clodagh resolves to cling closer to the repression of her feelings, Ruth rejects this very idea and determines to express herself – even as it costs her everything. 

This heated growing madness is powers the film – and Kathleen Byron provides most of the drama with a stunningly unhinged performance, which builds so quietly (almost in the background of the film) that it never becomes wearing and also surprises with the extent of her unhinged delusion. One particular night-time encounter with Clodagh sizzles with rival agendas – one woman using a lipstick, the other using a Bible. 

Powell (and it was Powell who largely directed these Archers pictures) uses a variety of techniques to develop this unease. Several shots are direct POV shots, with the audience becoming one of the characters, giving us the slightly unsettling feeling of being addressed by the actors. Quick tableaux editing gives us economic storytelling and a sense of events building swiftly towards a head (several sequences use a series of quick cuts of characters reacting to events). The camera uses a series of close-ups of sweaty foreheads or dizzying, vertigo inducing shots of the Himalayas to increase the unease. A later shot shows Sister Ruth moving through a shimmeringly filmed jungle, bringing a sense of confused eroticism to the picture.

Sexuality is a major theme of the film – and the characters have a series of acknowledged or unacknowledged sexual interests in each other. The music and camera work develop a sense of heated intensity on the mountain that suggests a simmering heat that unnerves the mind and throws open the temptations of physicality. Old wall paintings from the harem of bare-breasted women seem to be a constant presence – no wonder feelings are running high.

Jack Cardiff’s photography is simply extraordinary – it’s hard to believe none of this was filmed on location and most of it was shot in a studio – and this is still a film today that is hugely beautiful. The production by Alfred Junge is hugely impressive, with the nunnery a triumph of mismatched themes.

It’s not perfect. It’s a bit awkward to see actors blacking up. Some of the acting is quite OTT or stagy – in particular May Hallatt at points – and the film’s occasional delight in its visual appeal means its themes don’t always get the exploration that they deserve. One of the disadvantages of its deliberately vague timeline is that sometimes events happen too soon – or we don’t get enough sense of why they are happening. But these are blemishes.

This is a masterfully made picture, still beautiful to look at with impressive performances from Kerr, Byron, Farrar and many of the rest of the cast. It’s a surprisingly gothic melodrama by the end, with reds splashed across the screen with an imposing sense of threat. Still one that needs to be seen: and the end is so melodramatically gothic considering where the film started that the fact it doesn’t seem hugely jarring is an enormous tribute to the talents of those involved.

I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)

Roger Livesey and Wendy Hiller prove opposites can attract in Powell and Pressburger’s marvellous I Know Where I’m Going!

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: Wendy Hiller (Joan Webster), Roger Livesey (Torquil MacNeil), Pamela Brown (Catriona), Finlay Currie (Ruairidh Mhor), George Craney (Mr Webster), Nancy Price (Mrs Crozier), Catherine Lacey (Mrs Robinson), Jean Cadall (Postmistress), John Laurie (John Campbell), Valentine Dyall (Mr Robinson)

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) is a young middle-class woman with ambitious aims who has worked to secure a marriage to a wealthy, much older, industrialist. En route to the wedding in Scotland, she gets stranded on the Isle of Mull by a storm. There, she finds a world of very different values and principles than her own. She also finds herself thrown together with naval officer Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey) a man trying to return home for leave. Trapped on the island for days, Joan and Torquil find themselves romantically drawn together – however much Joan tries to avoid it.

Powell and Pressburger’s films all have a sense of filmic magic to them. They are the sort of films it’s very easy to fall in love with, and swear by. I Know Where I’m Going falls into that model extremely well – a dreamy romance in a stunning looking Scottish island, full of engaging characters and beautifully filmed. It’s a seemingly simple romance story, but it feels like a deep and engaging fable – it’s a film that shows how throwing a little uncertainty into a life can be a good thing.

Because Joan Webster categorically knows where she is going. The film’s entire build-up centres around her ambition and overwhelming focus. She literally dreams about marrying the engineering firm (yup that’s right, the firm itself not the man). She pushes her father into putting together a detailed itinerary for her entire journey. She seems to have no self-doubt whatsoever. So the magic of the film is that, deep down, it’s a about a woman realising that the place she has spent her whole life going, isn’t in fact where she wants to go. And the audience can see right away that she wants something else – much quicker than her!

This works because Powell and Pressburger get the romantic feeling of the island and its people so spot on. It’s very easy to get this Monarch of the Glen style Scottish idyll stuff feeling wearing and tedious. But somehow, it just sort of clicks. We don’t get the islanders’ charm and love of the simple life rammed down our throats, we just see how they behave and their simple contentment – and of course we have it compared all the time with Joan’s ruthless ambition. This combines really well with Powell and Pressburger’s lyrical style, their semi-magical romantic camera shots making the island seem hugely attractive (even when it is lashed with wind and rain).

By contrast our brief impression of the world outside Scotland seems cold and mechanical. It’s all offices, impersonal train booths, and besuited chaps giving stiff-collared responses. In a neat piece of cross cutting, one businessman even appears as if he has train steam puffing out of his top hat, like some human train. But we have hints that Joan has more romance under her skin than she would like to admit: as the train moves into Scotland (the film makes no real attempt at realism for its train shots) Joan dreams of the landscape they move through like some sort of tartan vision, with hills made of patchwork quilts. It’s one lovely image.

Then we have the arrival on the island – it’s got a charming, breezy openness about it. Out first introduction to Pamela Brown’s radiant Catriona is on a rainy hill with a pair of wolf hounds, before she bursts into a room (low angle cameras make her look even more romantic). Could the contrast with the mechanism of the rest of the world be more precisely made? There is a charming lack of interest in worldly affairs – the people are “not poor, they just haven’t got any money” – and what could be tiresome scenes set in ceilidhs and the like actually carry a lot of charm with them. Compare the vibrancy the islanders greet life with with the distant coldness of the wedding guests staying there – which group looks like the people you would like to spend time with?

The other thing that really works is the romantic relationship between Joan and Torquil doesn’t feel forced, or jump through too many clichéd hoops and feels organic and natural. The actors have fantastic chemistry, and the film playfully places them in a number of situations that drives this unspoken interest. It’s got more than a touch of screwball comedy about it – two people trapped together, one of them with mounting frustration – despite not really, as such, having a plot. 

Wendy Hiller is superb as Joan Webster – she brings a Katherine Hepburnish quality to the role: a determined, modern woman, a control freak in a situation where she has no power at all and hating every minute of it. What really works though is her own lack of self-knowledge. It’s clear to the viewer (and most of the characters) she is developing a deep attraction to Torquil, but Hiller makes it clear that Joan is completely unaware consciously of this. It’s a marvellous performance, totally relatable and hugely endearing, despite Joan’s ruthless certainty, because it’s always subtly puncturing that certainty with doubt.

Roger Livesey makes a perfect countpoint as Torquil. It’s a perfect role for him – a twinkly people-person, old-fashioned but not a stiff-upper lip cold-fish, who has dedicated his life to service, but can still enjoy himself. He also, in a way that many men in films of the time don’t, wears his feelings close to the surface. It’s clear he is in love with Joan from an early point, and every beat of his body language indicates this. At the ceilidh he can barely take his eyes from her – while his body language subtly (but not possessively) indicates his interest. He has an old-fashioned, casual, scruffy charm to him that never gets wearing. He’s also superb.

You’ve got a beautiful romance at the centre, with two characters it’s very difficult not to end up caring a great deal for. Beautifully acted – Pamela Brown is marvellous and Finlay Currie suitably gruff – it’s a film that feels distinctive, that makes charm and playfulness never feel wearing. Not much happens, but it’s beautiful, very sweet and extremely charming. You warm to these characters, and Powell and Pressburger create a world that feels incredibly attractive. There is some fine film-making here – from imaginative dream sequences, to intelligent visual choices that quietly influenced anyone making a film about the romance of the simple life. A little known treat.