A young woman knows where she is going. She always has. Today it is to the island of Kiloran in the Scottish Hebrides. It will take a day and a night to get there—first by train, then by boat—but when she does, she’ll marry Sir Robert Bellinger, a wealthy British industrialist. “It’s all been arranged. Everything’s been arranged,” she tells her father. But like the song says:
I know where I’m going
I know who’s going with me
I know who I love
But the devil knows who I’ll marry.
She is Joan Webster, and she’s played by Wendy Hiller—perfectly, too. Her fiancé is played by Norman Shelley, but only as voice over the radio. Along the way, a storm waylays Joan on the Isle of Mull, and she can’t reach Sir Robert. There’ll be no crossing till that thing dies down, the locals tell her, you’ll have to wait it out at Catriona’s place. There she meets Torquil MacNeil, a Scottish naval officer on leave trying to get home to Kiloran. He’s played by Roger Livesey—the great Roger Livesey.
And this is I Know Where I’m Going! from writers/producers/directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The great Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Movie for movie, few were better, and IKWIG (as Powell and Pressburger fans like to call it) is one of their best.
Shot in shimmering black and white by cinematographer Erwin Hillier, IKWIG is a magical romance. Not because fairies and spirits romp about, but because there’s something magical about all Powell & Pressburger’s films. Sometimes the images are so indelible you can’t believe your eyes. Sometimes the dialogue is so spectacular you can’t believe your ears. And they don’t make a big deal about it. They honor their medium by honoring their audience. They give you the best because you deserve it, and anything less isn’t worth it.
IKWIG came at an exciting time in Powell and Pressburger’s career. Both started in cinema separately but then were joined by producer Alexander Korda for 1939’s The Spy in Black, a troubled production in desperate need of reworking. Pressburger had ideas about the script, and Powell stepped in as director. The movie’s success was entirely their doing. They stayed together for Contraband (1940) and 49th Parallel (1941). Both are good, but the next three are better: One of Our Aircraft Are Missing (1942), The Life and Death of Col. Blimp (1943), and A Canterbury Tale (1944). All were hits, and the Archers (as they called their venture) were on a role. Then the British government came and asked them to do a movie to improve U.S./U.K. relations. The war was winding down, and the powers that be thought a movie could bridge the gap between wartime and peacetime relations. Powell and Pressburger’s offer: A Matter of Life and Death, a Technicolor spectacular about this life and the next. But all the Technicolor stock was spoken for—primarily by the U.S. Army for training videos. If Powell and Pressburger wanted to make a movie in color, they would have to wait. But in the meantime, they could make another movie, any movie they wanted, so long as it was in black and white.
What about the story of a girl who wants to get to an island but can’t? Pressburger offered Powell.
Why can’t she? Powell asked.
I don’t know, Pressburger said. Why don’t we write it and find out?
And so we have IKWIG, one of the most romantic movies ever made—a true masterpiece.
I Know Where I’m Going! is available to stream on The Criterion Channel and broadcast on TCM. The channel broadcast the film, and a 20-minute documentary about Powell and Pressburger, for this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival. Three other Powell & Pressburger movies are also streaming in the Curated By TCM hub on HBO Max: Black Narcissus (1947), The Life and Death of Col. Blimp, and The Red Shoes (1948).