Scorsese presents a buried gem and a pitch for cinema's past

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This image released by The Film Foundation shows Roger Livesey, left, and Wendy Hiller in a scene from "I Know Where I'm Going!" On Monday, Martin Scorsese and the Film Foundation will launch a new virtual theater to screen restored classic films. They are beginning, fittingly, with one of the most passionately adored gems: William Powell and Emeric Pressburger's "I Know Where I'm Going!" (The Film Foundation via AP)

NEW YORK – While Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker were holed up in an apartment cutting “Raging Bull” — an intense process that would have consumed the thoughts of most filmmakers — Scorsese told his editor to take a break. He had a movie he needed to show her.

“He said, ‘You have to see this one,’” recalls Schoonmaker.

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Scorsese was by then already a passionate fan of the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the British filmmaking duo known as the Archers. He considered Technicolor films like “The Red Shoes,” “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” and “A Matter of Life and Death” to be masterpieces. But he had held off watching their 1945 black-and-white Scottish romance, “I Know Where I'm Going!” fearing it might be “a lighter picture.” Something about that title. And besides, just how many masterworks could Powell and Pressburger have made?

Yet Scorsese was coaxed into screening it with his friend Jay Cocks the night before shooting began on “Raging Bull.”

“I couldn’t have been more wrong," Scorsese recalled in an email. "It was funny, it was exciting, it was truly mystical and it was deeply stirring. I’ve seen ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ many times since then — so many times, in fact, that I’ve almost lost count — and I’m always moved and always surprised every time, and I’m held in suspense right up to those amazing final moments.”

On Monday, Scorsese and the film restoration nonprofit he founded, the Film Foundation, will launch a new virtual theater, the Film Foundation Restoration Screening Room. Every month, for one night only, films that have been restored by the Film Foundation will be presented in free online screenings accompanied by discussions from Scorsese and other filmmakers. The screening room begins, naturally, with the restoration of “I Know Where I'm Going!”

Since it was released in the waning days of World War II, “I Know Where I'm Going!” has played a unique role in the hearts of moviegoers. It isn't the most celebrated Powell and Pressburger film, nor is it regularly listed on all-time lists. Instead, it's a movie that tends to be shared moviegoer to moviegoer, like a cherished gift or family treasure. It's a buried gem that anyone who's ever seen it wants to tell everyone about. “You have to see this one” is how most conversations about “I Know Where I'm Going!” begin.

“At the end of the war, people had suffered so much,” says Schoonmaker, speaking recently by phone. “And here is this movie that lifts your heart.”

Shortly after seeing “I Know Where I'm Going,” Powell visited Scorsese, who encouraged Schoonmaker to come along to dinner. They hit it off and by 1984 were married. Powell died in 1990; Pressburger in 1988. Ever since, Schoonmaker and Scorsese's have dedicated themselves — when they're not making films (they're currently finishing the edit on “Killers of the Flower Moon,” an expansive crime film for Apple about the 1920s murders in Oklahoma's Osage Nation )— to restoring Powell and Pressburger's movies. Scorsese recently signed on to narrate a documentary on their films. For years, Schoonmaker has been combing through Powell's diaries with the hope of publishing them.

“I inherited that,” says Schoonmaker, Scorsese's celebrated longtime editor. “Michael, when he died, left a little furnace burning inside of me. What keeps me going is loving and trying to get other people to love his work.”

How much can come from loving an old movie? For Schoonmaker, the answer is almost everything. Scorsese's passion for the Archers' movies inspired Schoonmaker's own, and in turn led to the love of her life.

“It was Marty’s passion for film history that made this all happen,” she says, chuckling.

The Film Foundation, which collaborated with the British Film Institute on the “I Know Where I'm Going” restoration, has restored more than 925 films, preserving wide swaths of film history and picking up the slack of many of today's film studios, who have showed less interest in preserving cinema's past than keeping pipelines of new “content” flowing.

“At this point, they’re not film companies anymore, but vast media conglomerates. For them, old movies are one small item in a wide array of properties and activities,” says Scorsese. “The people who run them are several generations from the very question of cinema: the word is meaningful only as a marketing term. Their interest is not in making good films, but in making their shareholders richer. So, no, restoring a Howard Hawks picture is not high on their list of priorities. The idea that it should be, for reasons that have nothing to do with profits and losses, is not even entertained. In this atmosphere, the idea of art has no place. It throws a wrench in the works.”

“I Know Where I'm Going!," though, stands for the foolhardiness of best laid plans. Powell and Pressburger made it in 1944 while awaiting the Technicolor cameras Lawrence Olivier was using to make “Henry V." Pressburger is believed to have written it in a matter of days. They pitched it to Ministry of Information, which controlled wartime moviemaking, as an anti-materialistic tale. (Britain feared a rash of consumerism would follow wartime rationing.)

In it, a headstrong woman, Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) travels to the Scottish Herbrides (the film was shot on the picturesque Isle of Mull) to marry a wealthy lord. But stormy weather prevents her from crossing to Kiloran (the island of Colonsay). While awaiting passage, she meets a naval officer (Roger Livesey) from the area. They become quickly enmeshed in local life, as we grow enchanted with it. Joan feels increasingly pulled off course.

But summarizing the exhilarating magic of “I Know Where I'm Going!” never quite does it justice. It reverberates with a warm, lyrical spirit that feels poised between past and present, legend and reality. It's a movie that you, just as helpless as Joan, can't help falling for.

The film's devotees are a passionate tribe. “The Big Sleep” author Raymond Chandler once wrote, “I've never seen a picture which smelled of the wind and rain quite this way." Tilda Swinton, who has a family home on Colonsay, thinks “I Know Where I'm Going!” should be handed out by Scottish diplomats when they travel the globe. “It's like a confessional," Swinton says in a video made for the Film Foundation. “You go back to it every few years.”

“I Know Where I'm Going” is in part about reconnecting with something — with nature and old ways — that makes it a particularly fitting film to kick off the Restoration Screening Room. With appointed showtimes and robust conversation around the film, the virtual theater is set up in a way that clearly differs from the standard streaming experience.

“We’ve gotten used to watching and listening on our own time. Something’s been gained, but something has also been lost,” says Scorsese. “We felt it was important to create a way of watching movies that guaranteed there was a greater audience out there watching and responding at the same time.”

At a time when film culture can be unsure of its direction, the lovingly restored “I Know Where I'm Going!” may help light the way. It is, at any rate, one spirit-lifting port in a storm.

“I’ve always felt that you can’t have a present or a future of cinema without its past. The films that I’ve seen, that I’ve re-seen and studied, that I’ve discovered for myself or through a friend ... they enrich me, they inspire me, they sustain me," says Scorsese. "I suppose it's possible to imagine someone making movies without bothering to see anything made before their own time. But the question is: why? What’s the point? Why not see what you come out of? Every film is in conversation with every film before it and every one that follows it. It’s true of all art. Isn’t that amazing?”


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