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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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In the Man-Versus-Nature Battle, This One Went to Nature

New York Times: Saturday September 25, 1999

Looking at Michael Powell's 1937 film, "The Edge of the World," you would hardly guess that this early work by the great British director emanated from the same hand that 11 years later gave us the balletic opulence of "The Red Shoes." Exquisitely photographed in black and white, the film gazes with such concentrated awe upon the steep, craggy landscape of Foula, a remote, wind-and-rain-battered Scottish island in the North Sea, that certain sequences produce a sense of vertigo.

Those dizzying sequences, of men clawing up a sheer rock face barehanded or lowering themselves from high, jagged cliffs on frayed ropes, are more heart-stopping than 90 percent of the daredevil stunts concocted for contemporary action-adventure films. Beyond their technical virtuosity, what lends them a visceral power is the film's implacably gloomy vision of man versus nature. Here there is just no contest. Instead of Hollywood's sweating, straining beefcake gods conquering the physical world, these climbers are tiny human flies clinging perilously to life in an indifferent, punishing environment that commands infinitely more force than the sinew of Hollywood's bulkiest superhero.

Only a small part of the film, which the New York Film Festival is showing this afternoon at 12:30 in Alice Tully Hall in a pristine new 35-millimeter print, deals with such hair-raising adventure. When it is exploring the livelihood and customs of the islanders, the movie assumes an anthropological tone, following the islanders into church, overhearing their casual conversations and observing a subsistence way of life that revolves around fishing and herding sheep.

On top of everything, "The Edge of the World" tells a romantic story of star-crossed love, a child born out of wedlock and feuding families in a fiercely puritanical society. If the love story seems dated, with the camera shamelessly monumentalizing the actors' faces, the shots are beautifully composed in a high-romantic late-1930's style. And Belle Chrystall and Niall McGinnis, as the lovers, Ruth Manson and Andrew Gray, convey a passion that the stylization doesn't entirely undercut.

But what finally makes "The Edge of the World" more than a period piece and an intriguing indication of Powell's potential is its profoundly sad vision of a proud, tiny self-sustaining society struggling to stay independent, then finally giving up. At the beginning of the film, we visit the now-deserted island. The rest of the tale is told in flashback, with the love story's conflicts mirroring the larger debate among the islanders about their future. (When Ruth's twin brother opposes Andrew's vision of the island's future, the two men risk their lives in a rock-climbing contest.)

The final exodus, which finds the islanders gravely filing onto a boat, leaving many of their pets behind, is as sobering an ending as you'll find in any film. For eventually, civilizations, like all of us, run out of steam and die.

Written and directed by Michael Powell;
directors of photography, Monty Berman, Skeets Kelly and Ernest Palmer;
edited by Derek Twist;
music by Cyril Ray;
produced by Joe Rock;
released by Milestone Film and Video.
Shown today at 12:30 P.M. at Alice Tully Hall as part of the 37th New York Film Festival.
Running time: 81 minutes.
This film is not rated.
With a 30-minute short, Balint Kenyeres's "Closing Time."

WITH: Eric Berry (Robbie Manson), Belle Chrystall (Ruth Manson), Finlay Currie (James Gray), Margaret Grieg (Baby), Kitty Kirwan (Jean Manson), John Laurie (Peter Manson), Niall McGinnis (Andrew Gray), Michael Powell (Yachtsman), Campbell Robson (Laird), George Summers (Skipper) and Grant Sutherland (Catechist).

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