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THE EDGE OF THE WORLD

UK, 1937 (MIFF 1992, Retrospectives)

Director: Michael Powell

In his autobiography A Life In Movies, Michael Powell describes The Edge Of The World as his first significantly personal work. The project took many years to finance and was to undergo a difficult production. Powell and his crew were forced to live on the remote and treacherous Shetland and Orkney Islands of the North Atlantic during the four months of filming, its very making a triumph of team­work and perseverance.

For Powell, the tragic grandeur of the Scot­tish islands became nothing less than an obses­sion. The 32-year-old director wrote a full-scale book, 200,000 Feet On Foula, which was re-published in 1990 as a tribute to the man who has gone on to become, to many, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

Powell himself claimed that the final film was "entirely saved" by editor Derek Twist, a claim that is hard to reconcile with the film's concise, elliptical form. Ironically, three years earlier Powell had watched Flaherty wrestle for one year with the footage of Man Of Aran, while he turned out four routine 'quickies' at Gaumont-British. Possibly what Powell meant was that Twist helped him realize the fable which expressed his romantic response to the drama of civilization pitted against nature.

The idea of the film was prompted by a newspaper article on the depopulation of the Scottish islands, where the rifts between tradi-tional life, the new methods of trawler fishing and the attractions of the mainland had seen entire islands abandoned. Powell set the film on the island of Foula (in the film it is named Hirta/which is Norse for 'death') and into this fateful situation placed the story of two men whose amicable rivalry has a tragic end.

Recalling the romantic tradition of Robert Flaherty, Powell made gTeat use of the settings to document the poignant theme of humans struggling against the challenges of nature. Even the film's critics (some have criticized the crusty plot and performances, though it must be added that others felt simplicity strength­ened the film) have hailed the daring photog­raphy and use of dialogue —• "a sound film rather than a talking picture," wrote Roy Armes.

CA. Lejeune, doyenne of British film crit­ics, noted that The Edge of the World was no simple documentary, but full of "double expo­sures, ghost figures, narrative fade-outs, super-impositions of sound". Across the Atlantic, Frank Nugent in the New York Times hailed it "One of the most beautifully photographed, most unusual and most dramatic films Eng­land has given us this year".

But as Powell relates in the epilogue Return To The Edge Of The World (see below), contemporary audiences at home were less than enthusiastic about the film, which enjoyed only a brief theatrical release. The film was later re-issued in an abridged version, but is now being seen in a superb restoration cour­tesy of the National Film Archive, London.

After making The Edge Of The World, Pow­ell vowed never to make another 'quota' thriller. Alexander Korda was so impressed upon seeing the film that he offered Powell a one-year contract. The project he set to work on never eventuated, instead Powell directed The Spy In Black, the first of many productive collaborations with Emeric Pressburger.

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