Counting the Beams

I Know Where I’m Going is a love story between a man and a woman, a director and a country, and me and the movies of Powell and Pressburger.

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I’m a big, easily-manipulated sap when it comes to movies. If they tell me to cry, I’ll bawl like I’m at a funeral. If they show me a cheap scare and tell me to jump, I’ll ask “How high?” and “Would you also like me to lose control of my bladder?”

Where I’ve always been strangely immune, though, is with movie romances. I like moments here and there (and I love the “Your Song” sequence from Moulin Rouge! way more than any man should admit), but I always end the movie feeling vaguely out of sync. The whole story’s been building up to this big climax, and when it finally happens, I just think, “Hmm. Well that happened.” For me, every movie romance might as well be The Graduate.

At least until I saw I Know Where I’m Going! by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. I’d never heard of the movie until I read Matt Dessem’s great write-up on his Criterion Contraption blog. I was surprised to see it get the Criterion treatment, as opposed to the more visually interesting A Matter of Life and Death, and I was surprised to see people calling out something so relatively obscure as one of their favorite movies. And after watching the movie with a reasonably detached interest for an hour or so, I was especially surprised to find myself tearing up. There’s a scene (pictured above) where the music swells, the dam breaks, and the rest of the movie delivers its big, romantic pay-off exactly as it was intended. For me, at least, it worked perfectly: this robot had finally learned to love.

I’ve only seen three of Powell & Pressburger’s movies at this point (the third is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), but at least through those three, there’s a common thread: they’re independent films made by conservatives. Not “conservative” in the modern, bastardized, politicized sense of the word, but in the literal sense: they have a very traditional, populist, and extremely British sensibility to them.

In his write-up of I Know Where I’m Going, Matt Dessem describes it and Black Narcissus (another Powell & Pressburger film from around the same period) as “genre jumpers.” That’s not the term I’d use, because it has a connotation of artifice that I just don’t see in movies this earnest. You could make a strong case that I Know Where I’m Going is a commentary on the British middle-class and the folly of social climbing, using the format of a screwball romantic comedy, but I like my interpretation better. I see it as what happens when these two filmmakers try to make a straightforward screwball romantic comedy: it starts out predictably enough, but they can’t help cramming in personal touches. They’re not constrained to formula, they just happen to really like the formula. And because they’re independent, they have the freedom to take what they want from the formula and jettison the rest.

The result is something that’s familiar without feeling formulaic, imaginative without being provocative, and completely sincere and genuine. That sincerity is the only way you can get a movie with such broadly-drawn characters — each the representation of an idea more than an actual person — that still manages to move you by the end. It’s the only way you could present a romantic comedy in which it’s clear from the first frame that the two leads will get together, and still make the ending a surprise.

The Basics

ikwig_itinerary.jpgHere’s the set-up: Joan Webster is an intensely driven woman from London’s upper-middle class. (Before this movie, it didn’t even occur to me that England had a middle class until the 60s. Too much “Upstairs, Downstairs,” I suppose). In a modern version of this story, Joan would be a cold executive who’d never made time to love, or a plucky office worker climbing her way to the top. Since this is England in the 40s, though, Joan’s ambition is to marry a rich man. (As Matt points out: when her father asks who’s the fiance, Joan responds not with the name of a man, but with the card of his company. The love triangle here isn’t between a woman and two men, but between a woman, a man, and money). As the story starts, Joan’s on her way to the Isle of Kiloran for her wedding day, an expensive dress and her meticulously-planned itinerary at the ready.

ikwig_corryvreckan.jpgThings go awry (as they tend to do) when Joan reaches the Isle of Mull, the next-to-last stop on her journey. A heavy fog has stopped the ferry, so she’s stranded on the island for the night. There she meets Torquil MacNeil, a naval officer on leave, also trying to get to his home on Kiloran. She’s not interested at first — I’m not saying she’s a gold digger, but she’s not playing with any broke naval officers. That night, Torquil offers a bit of folklore to help her out: before you go to sleep, count the beams in the ceiling and make a wish. Joan wishes for a heavy wind to blow the fog away, and she wakes up to discover a storm has stranded her on the island for even longer. The longer she’s stranded on the island, the more desperate she is to reach Kiloran. The hitch in her travel plans and the postponement of her wedding are just an annoyance; the bigger threat is her growing attraction to Torquil and everything he represents, a life that she never planned for.

Screwball Comedy

The main draw of A Matter of Life and Death is the imagery; the romance is perfunctory and basically incidental. I Know Where I’m Going has a lot less of that, but Powell & Pressburger can’t help but front-load the movie with imagination. Joan’s character is introduced during the opening credits as being driven since birth, social climbing even before she could walk. The movie’s credits are spread through the sets, carved into pedestals, written on signs, painted on the side of a milk cart, any available surface.

Then there’s this shot from Joan’s dream sequence on board the train, where we see the version of Scotland in her imagination:
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The first twenty minutes of the movie set the tone of a screwball comedy, but I get the sense that it was more an excuse for Powell & Pressburger to get it all out of their system. The dream sequence is pretty much the last of it. The cinematography remains interesting throughout the movie, but as the scene transitions from England to Scotland, the visuals transition from wacky to straightforward. Take, for example, this iconic shot leading up to Catriona’s entrance:
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Romance

You don’t go to romantic movies (especially ones from the 40s) looking for nuanced, realistic characters; the people are filling roles, and the leads are fated to get together from the first frame. I Know Where I’m Going has the characters doing double-duty: they’re not just filling their movie romance roles but representing ideals.

To start with, there’s our hero Torquil MacNeil, played by Powell favorite (and mine!) Roger Livesey:
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playing the part of The Ideal British Gentleman. He’s an officer in the navy, as any respectable British man should be in 1945. He’s cultured and sophisticated, but equally comfortable hunting in the Scottish highlands as he is in London society. He can speak Gaelic and fix a boat during a storm! The movie has plenty of scenes contrasting him with commoners, tiresome upper-class twits, and money-driven industrialists. We never see Joan’s fiance, but we do learn — spoiler! — that Torquil is from the family of nobles that are the rightful lords of Kiloran. In other words, he’s the man she should be heading towards, not the nouveau-riche impostor who currently owns the island.

And to make him completely irresistible in movie romance terms: he’s got a curse! All men of the MacNeil family are forbidden from entering the mysterious Castle Moy, part of an ancient legend that’s not fully revealed until the movie’s last scene. If they were going for romantic appeal, they might as well have made him a vampire or a pediatrician.

If there were still any doubt that an attraction would develop between the two leads, it’s dispelled by the scene where Torquil asks Joan for a light:
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which is second only to Silence of the Lambs in the category of Shots of Just Two Hands Touching That Can Still Make You Gasp.

The role of the Other Woman is filled by Catriona, an old friend of Torquil’s, who makes a reasonably spectacular entrance with her dogs:
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She’s a married woman, the owner of the house in which they’re staying out the storm, a woman comfortable hunting and skinning rabbits and — even more foreign to Joan — comfortable with her upper-middle class station. In short, she’s the woman that Joan should aspire to be, not the glamorous-but-loveless version from her dream on the train, awash in money but ultimately not real.

In one of the special features, Michael Powell’s widow says that the original story had the idea of a former romance between Torquil and Catriona, an idea that was cut from the final film. I’d say that they may have attempted to cut it, but it’d be impossible to remove it completely: there’s a chemistry between Torquil and Catriona that’s evident from the moment she comes on screen. But then, it’d be difficult not to be intrigued and entranced by Pamela Brown, especially when she’s introduced and shot like a Witch of the Wilds:
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(Powell’s widow also mentions a romance between the director and Brown towards the end of her life, which is also apparent just from watching the film. She’s often shot like this, as if the director is tempted to just forget about Joan and make the whole movie about Catriona).

Still, the relationship between Torquil and Catriona is kept strictly platonic, which is a crucial part of why the romance works. Because her role is more sophisticated and nuanced than you might expect: she’s not a complication for Torquil, but for Joan.
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I haven’t really said much specifically about Joan yet, because she’s the most fully-realized person in the movie and therefore the least interesting. It’s not the fault of Wendy Hiller, who does a remarkable job of playing the part of Female Romantic Comedy Lead while keeping it feeling completely genuine. (And, incidentally, looking like Emma Peel’s slightly older sister throughout). There are moments more subtle than you’d expect in a movie like this, as well: the shot above is the first truly genuine smile we see from Joan, and it comes not from seeing Torquil but from meeting Catriona. This is the first hint we get that her high-society aspirations are all just talk; what she really wants is to be at home in a place like this. Reportedly, Powell originally wanted Deborah Kerr for the part, but I think that would’ve thrown off the tone of the entire movie: Kerr was a fine actress, but she just simply didn’t read as anything other than upper-class.

ikwig_inthestorm.jpgThe only hint of irony in a movie this sincere is in the title: Joan is the only one who doesn’t know where she’s going; it’s clear to all of us in the audience, and to most of the characters, where she’s going to end up. But even though it’s fated from the start, the romance feels genuine because you get to see it play out, to see the gradual shift in Joan’s character. She’s not portrayed as a sap or a foil, or as a vapid heroine, or even as a representation of the Folly of Social Climbing. Powell & Pressburger have a real affection for the character, and she’s portrayed as a basically good woman with one big blind spot. And as she ditches the affectations of high society, she’s made more and more sympathetic. (Incidentally, the point that I probably disagree with Matt the most is in his description of Joan as completely unlikeable in the first part of the movie. I thought they did a respectable job of keeping her likeable but misguided).

It’s all a clever twist on the romantic comedy formula. All the usual elements are there: the First Meeting, the Other Woman, the Montage Where They Fall in Love, the Third Act Complication. But those aren’t the substance of the story; the real complication is that Joan has to get over herself.

Travelogue

It’s not just the characters doing double duty as thematic elements; the setting has a theme as well. And that theme is: “Scotland is awesome.” You can tell that Powell was fascinated by the place and its importance as a part of the United Kingdom separate from England.

The image of the tartan landscape from Joan’s dream was more than just a visual gag; it was important to set off the typical Londoner’s notion of Scotland as a bizarre but quaint backwater from the realistic version the movie would show in its second half.
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Well, more realistic, anyway. It’s still a very romanticized portrait, with castles and moors and fog and deadly whirlpools and ancient curses. But still, the movie makes it clear that the people and their traditions are the real allure of the place, not just the scenery.

We can see Joan getting swayed over to her new, proper way of life when Torquil takes her to a céilidh to pass the time while they’re stranded.
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Again, the movie just takes it as a given that any woman in her right mind would fall in love with a prime British specimen like Torquil; what’s important to show is Joan falling in love with Scotland, its traditions, its culture, and its people. And just as importantly, falling out of love with the shallowness of upper-class city life. As Torquil and Catriona both tell her at different points in the movie: the people here aren’t poor, they just don’t have any money. It’s not the same thing.

By the end of the movie (also known as The Time I Spent Weeping), all of the pieces fall into place, and various incidental plot points introduced earlier suddenly have a clearer purpose. But that doesn’t mean that the movie’s some tightly-scripted clockwork. Powell & Pressburger liked to wander around and just show the audience things they were interested in, like their fascination with motorbikes in both A Matter of Life and Death and Colonel Blimp. Here, the fascination is side character Colonel Barnstaple’s fascination with falconry, and with the extended sequence around the céilidh. It’s shown almost like a religious ceremony, with the dancers and singers all lit with a heavenly glow. With all the close-up shots of people enraptured by folk music, you’d almost think you were watching The Passion of Joan of Arc:
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To an American, the kind of populism the movie preaches seems more than a little odd: its message is that money isn’t everything, but it still accepts a fairly rigid class system as if it were a given. There’s still a very clear division between the characters we care about and the “commoners,” even as we’re shown how great it is to have these people around. At least, to be able to watch them, and have them place phone calls or pilot boats for you.

But I’m taking that not as any hypocrisy or malice, but just another aspect of the time and place it was made, part of its inherent Britishosity. And I think it’s ultimately irrelevant, since social commentary wasn’t the main purpose of this movie. I think the main reason I Know Where I’m Going feels so genuine is that it isn’t focused just on a place, or a romantic comedy plot, or even a specific message. Instead, there’s a more universal idea behind it all: defy your own expectations, learn to appreciate the unexpected, and don’t let your own plans for your life get in the way of your living it.

4 thoughts on “Counting the Beams”

  1. I’ve only ever seen the middle part of this film, and even then, it’s always stayed with me. I had fallen in love with Scotland before watching the film, but this movie almost convinced me that being cold and wet and isolated is the nearest thing to Heaven, and I put on a sweater if gets down to 60F. What really surprised me about this film was that I did fall in love with Livesey’s naval officer. I’ll admit that there are good points to the Perfect British Gentleman, but volcanoes have their good points, too, doesn’t mean I’d want to get near one. The fact that Livesey played someone so “perfect” and still likable is a testament to his talent.

    And I’d give both my legs to be Catriona.

  2. And I’d give both my legs to be Catriona.

    Did you word it like that intentionally? Because one of the special features on the DVD revealed that Pamela Brown had severe arthritis for most of her life, and she always had trouble walking. Powell was reportedly very proud of how he managed to block and shoot scenes with Catriona so that you never saw her braces or noticed that she wasn’t walking a lot.

    The other fun fact from the extras is that Roger Livesey was never in Scotland for the entire production; they used a body double for all the genuine exteriors.

  3. I’m sorry to make a late response, but I have to say I really respect Pamela Brown now that I know about her arthritis. To be able to give such a graceful air of calm strength when she could barely stand is amazing. I had no idea whatsoever; thanks for sharing that.

  4. If you like romantic / tragic B&W Scottish films, then I suggest you check out “The brothers”. Will Fyffe, Duncan Macrae, John Laurie et al star in a tale of love and jealousy set in the western isles of Scotland. It’s not easy to find, but worth the effort.

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