Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going! Extract Analysis.
Sarah Street notes of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger that much of their work seems to “relish all the visual and aural properties of cinema.” As Ian Christie argues that their films are “created out of no obvious cinematic tradition” and I Know Where I’m Going is no exception. The opening ten minutes display all the hallmarks of Powell and Pressburger’s oeuvre, their fondness of fantastical situations and dream sequences set up the disjointed narrative that the film progresses into. The introduction appears more akin to a Howard Hawks screwball comedy than a fantastical romantic saga set in the Outer Hebrides.
Working within the commercial sphere of film production Powell and Pressburger however appear to be basking in the independence that being “The Archers” brought them following its formation in 1943 on the peripheries of the Rank Organisation. Powell and Pressburger may have even been influenced by Citizen Kane (1941), which wasn’t a popular film in England at the time. The use of Orson Welles’ signature low angles, deep focus, and use of shadows however may have stemmed from the cinematographer Erwin Hillier having had worked for Austrian filmmaker Fritz Lang who defined much of the early visual film language through the use of deep focus photography and low key lighting. There is certainly something of German expressionism and art cinema in the train sequence but the life story of a headstrong young adult is pure Kane. Joan Webster thinks she knows exactly where she’s going: on to marry the richest industrialist in Britain.
Following the Archers and Rank inserts proudly masquerading at the start of the picture during the opening credits we’re introduced to Joan Webster as a baby. Documentary influences can be detected in the authoritative and stentorian voiceover that guides us through early scenes from Joan’s life. “When Joan was only one year old, she already knew where she was going. Going right? Left? No. Straight on.” Credits appear too as part of the mise-en-scene detracting not from the opening montage that shows us Joan’s development through infancy and school life and builds the dizzying pace and rhythm of the kind of screwball comedy it at first appears to be emulating. Later the train journey will add to the frantic pace although the documentary form will be subverted by the hypnotising dream sequence and fantasy elements, a technique replicated by Richard Lester in the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night (1964) where Cinema Verité documentary elements are subverted instantly on a train when the Fab Four appear running along outside the train and segueing into a musical segment of ‘I Should Have Known Better’.
Powell and Pressburger present an intriguing depiction of gender in the opening ten minutes. The idea “male gaze” is explicitly evoked as the male narrator guides us through the formative years of Joan’s life. Webster is characterised as a snob and an aspirational social climber with the witting ability to manipulate men. The character makes demands of Santa Claus, the milk man, young suitors and later her father, all male characters are there to be, and seem to be, exploited by Joan. Unwittingly however she seems to be in control of her situation but bathed in a sense of irony the audience must be aware she is being set up for a fall. The reasons, though inexplicit, could be that in the UK at the time male audiences and the male population were terrified of the idea of the wartime and post-war mobile woman; or perhaps Powell and Pressburger, fine producers of films with female protagonists, gaze upon the aspirational female who strives for wealth through social climbing and gold digging disapprovingly.
Introduced as an adult, the camera reduces the fully grown Joan Webster to a pair of legs careening straight through a crowded bar. The powerful relentless stride of a woman in full deep focus, legs in full regularly characterise a dominant female full of ambition and desire. And remaining in the screwball comedy arena the ensuing interactions between Joan and her father remind us of the opening introductory interactions between Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) respectively. The frenetic pace and sharp revealing dialogue alerts us to four characters fully developed that are never seen again, one unseen and remaining so throughout the film. Powell and Pressburger’s execution of the disjointed narrative and disparate styles establish themes that could lead the film down any number of avenues, the audience unaware of what is to follow but certain the female lead will encounter some sort of comeuppance, however it isn’t until later on that we are introduced to Roger Livesey’s Torquil MacNeil who will set in motion the transformative diversion that Joan will take. For the first ten minutes Joan indeed knows where she is going and “everything is arranged”.
Joan’s interaction with her father is considerably charmless and self aggrandising, she postulates interrupting her doting father in almost every conversation. The tracking shot as they walk across the bar shows the bank manager Mr Webster following his daughter’s lead as she knows Manchester society, ordering “the usual” of gin and dubonnet and in the same vein ordering that her father speak to her as a her father and not as a bank manager as she wishes to withdraw all her money from her account. Travelling from Ecclesall just outside Sheffield we learn that Joan has left her father a few towns over by being in Manchester, even though he has clearly jumped at her insistent whim to travel across Snake Pass to be with her. Whilst they may be lost on an international audience, to use these northern locations before the film jumps up to Western Isles of Scotland is endearing and when the discourse of class and social conscience is discussed it adds authenticity and understanding to the British’ favourite obsession of class. Mr Webster’s dialogue is perhaps most revealing, the little Yorkshire bank manager exclaims “you can’t marry Consolidated Chemical Industries”, asserting that Sir Robert Bellinger must be “one of the wealthiest men in England” and as old as he is and when Joan inserts and stubbornly interrupts he most abruptly snorts “stop acting” exposing the level of artifice that his daughter is now inhabiting.
Compounding the idea of a strong female being set up for a fall the discussion tails off with a shot of a spotlight on a garishly oversized precious stone adorning an engagement ring, a slew of waiters serving and removing food from the table because it’s gone cold and the insistence that “daddy” should dance before he can expose her motives and utterly deplorable. During wartime audiences wouldn’t be particularly endeared by someone exerting that they wish to get “away from… people.”
The servile classes are further expounded in the train setting, Bellinger’s factotums give Joan her neatly typed itinerary and she seems ready for a life resigned to a filthy rich cocoon and timetables planned for her in advance, quite the kept British lady, unaware of the classless, warm and nature embracing Scottish society that awaits her over the border. It is through a signature Powell and Pressburger dream sequence that her transformative journey begins, all is not what it seems, and her shallow venality becomes abundantly clear. The plastic cover of her wedding dress envelopes the screen and she fantasises about being quite literally married to Consolidated Chemical Industries. Through this veneer we see the vulgarity of money, modernity and all that is funding the war industries are currently thriving and profiting in, Consolidated Chemical Industries surely one of which that would be. The dream sequences “give a brief, but succinct sketch of the world of order, wealth and discipline which the film challenges and which Joan eventually rejects.”
As Powell and Pressburger usually revel in, the film has magic woven into it. When the train rides into rides over the border into Scotland and Joan sleeps, the loudspeaker announces the station at Gretna Green. An optical illusion is employed, what appear to be sleepy checkered blankets become the tartan mountains of Scotland and the inauguration of the chequered tale of Joan’s development from headstrong lower middle class gold digger to appreciative romantic female.
It is with the opening of this film that we understand why Martin Scorsese would be “overwhelmed by its illustration of love laced with mysticism” and why Raymond Durgnat would compare Michael Powell to Georges Méliès. Magic, fantasy and illusion are abound and the challenge of endearing Joan to the wartime and post war audience is afoot.
 Street, Sarah, British National Cinema, London: Routledge, 1997, p.165.