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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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The Edge of the World
Michael Powell Coming Into His Own

by Ted Murphy

When one hears the name of British filmmaker Michael Powell, a number of films should immediately spring to mind, including his several collaboration with Emeric Pressburger, for example A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), or his solo work, especially the controversial classic Peeping Tom (1960). One of his earlier solo efforts, and the film that brought him to the attention of the Korda brothers, The Edge of the World (1937) has been restored by the British Film Institute and is now being re-released theatrically (handled in the United States by Milestone Film & Video) before it reaches the video shelves.

The film opens with a debonair yachtsman and his wife (played by Powell and his then-wife Frances "Frankie" Reidy) [They didn't marry until 1943 and strove to keep their romance a secret from the rest of the cast and crew in case it be thought Frankie got favourable treatment.] sailing to a deserted island off the Scottish coast. Their guide then recounts the story of how the residents made the decision to abandon their homeland and move to the mainland. Shot in glorious tones of gray by Monty Berman, Skeets Kelly and Ernest Palmer and employing dissolves and crosscuts for flashbacks, The Edge of the World is a visually stunning tale that possesses the air of a documentary. While Powell later came to be recognized for his mastery of Technicolor, this early film demonstrates his craftsmanship working in black and white.

On the island of Hirta, families were beginning to feel the force of progress. Food supplies were threatened by poor harvests, the amount of peat burned for warmth was depleting and more progressive forms of fishing were threatening their livelihood. Powell leisurely establishes the residents of the island and their routines. Soon, however, the emphasis shifts to the subplot that spurs the action, the star-crossed love affair between island residents Ruth Manson (Belle Chrystall) and Andrew Gray (Niall MacGinnis). Their families are on opposite sides about leaving so to settle the matter, Ruth's brother Robbie (Eric Berry) and Robbie [Robbie and Andrew] challenge one another to a rock climbing contest. These sequences feature incredible shots of the men scaling the mountainous side of the island and, of course, tragedy ensues. Lovers are parted and there is another brilliantly staged boat rescue during a storm that is very well done.

When one considers that Powell and his cast and crew were shooting in a remote location in the mid-1930s, The Edge of the World becomes even more fascinating. The director demonstrated his talents by capturing the harsh fury of a storm at sea as well as the majestic natural beauty of the landscape. The actors all contribute fine performances and the restoration has enhanced the vibrant cinematography and crisp editing. The film clearly held special consideration for Powell; forty years after its release, he and the surviving cast and crew, including an eighty-something John Laurie who had played the unyielding Manson patriarch, returned to the area to film the quasi-documentary Return to the Edge of the World. While the melodramatic romantic subplot disqualifies The Edge of the World for status as a bona fide masterpiece, it still has to rank as a fine example of its unique genre. [So a "masterpiece" can't have a romantic subplot?]

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