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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Submitted separately by Jane E. Langston and Malcolm Pratt
by Ella Taylor
Atlantic Monthly, Jul/Aug 2001
The story goes that Winston Churchill, after seeing Michael Powell's 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - and taking it, doubtless correctly, as a political attack on himself - fumed that this time, that Powell fellow had gone too far. To which Powell, one of Britain's finest filmmakers and a hero to the best among today's directors, from Mike Leigh to Martin Scorsese, sweetly responded that he thought that was the whole idea. As anyone who has seen Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), or Peeping Tom (1960) knows, going too far was Powell's credo. Though his visual style hardly seems over the top by today's goose-`em-or-lose-`em standards, his images harbor a dazzling emotional intensity without benefit of special effects.
Now the boutique art-house distributor Milestone Film & Video, which already deserves a medal for restoring and recirculating such lost classics as Mikhail Kalatozov's I Am Cuba and Pier Paolo Pasolini's Mamma Roma, has released to video Powell's gorgeous 1937 first feature, The Edge of the World (beautifully restored by the British Film Institute), the story of two clans torn apart in a tiny Scottish Isles crofting community. As always in Powell's movies, people go to exhilaratingly absurd extremes for love, or at least for their lives' passion. In this case, two insanely heroic - and, by all commonsense criteria, pointless - attempts to scale an impossibly sheer cliff at the edge of perennially stormy seas end in private tragedy; this is compounded by the consequences for the villagers (played by themselves and a wonderful cast featuring John Laurie, Finlay Currie, and Belle Chrystall), who are already taxed beyond endurance by the harsh conditions under which they live.
As much as it is about the vital durability of love, The Edge of the World is also the story of the death of an era. (It's hard to believe that the Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier wasn't inspired by this film's austere black-and-white lyricism to make his own wildly romantic melodrama, Breaking the Waves.) "Don't tell anyone - I'm a poet," an impishly immodest Powell remarks to the camera in a charming 1978 documentary post-script to the film, in which he goes back to the location, the island of St. Kilda [Foula], with his crew. No need to tell; it's all right there on the screen.
(Milestone: 800-603-1104; $29.95 plus shipping.)
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