Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger tributes in cinemas throughout the UK
One of Britain’s most imaginative filmmakers, Michael Powell, along with his sometime partner Emeric Pressburger, is being tributed throughout the UK till the end of 2023. Pinning down a single style or a top film for Powell would be a challenge. He worked in realism, fantasy, many genres. Among his most famous films are The Red Shoes, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and Black Narcissus.
One of Powell’s most controversial films is Peeping Tom from 1960 about a killer of women who films his victims’ deaths to preserve their last facial expressions. While this odd movie doesn’t categorize Powell’s style, it is influential.
In the midst of the British Film Institute’s countrywide tributel, Kino Lorber has just released a sparkling BluRay of The Edge of the World, written and directed by Powell, first released in 1937. On the disc are extras including Powell’s documentary short Return to the Edge of the World from 1979, and home movies of his narrated by his widow, Oscar-winning film editor Thelma Schoonmaker.
The Edge of the World is an example of British realism that was being developed by Scottish filmmaker and theorist John Grierson in the 1930s. Grierson, who actually coined the term “documentary,” felt that there was power in capturing images from real life, but also creating fictional images and stories and placing them within realist backgrounds.
The Edge of the World is an example of an imagined story shot within a realist backdrop. It was based on a true story that Powell had learned as a very young man. No studio work here! Powell brought his crew to the Shetland Island of Foula. He employed the people of Foula to act in his film, but also brought with him a few professionals, including famous actors of the period John Laurie and Finlay Currie. And, of course, the animals, including the Shetland sheep and Scottish breeds of dogs, are featured. Warning: The treatment of the dogs near the end of this movie is not within the lifestyle of modern-day Americans.
Against this commanding background, they filmed the story of a dwindling island population suffering from economic woes. There are too little farming and industry; the young men are abandoning the remote island for more lucrative places. To settle a dispute about the island’s future, two men, Andrew and Robbie, race each other to the top of a 1220-foot sea cliff. The results are pure drama.
The Edge of the World, with its 75-minute running time, is filled with excitement, suspense, misery, but also a celebration of life… and always the beauty and formidability of nature. There is effective use of traditional Scottish music throughout, contributing to the atmosphere and adding a dimension to the story.
Since the cameras are shooting actualities, not movie sets, the look is timeless. This is considered to be Powell’s first personal film. Eight years later, Powell made another film in this style, and it is one of his and Pressburger’s most renowned works. It is called I Know Where I’m Going starring Wendy Hiller as a sharp, determined city woman caught in a storm on an island in the Scottish Hebrides, a situation that changes her life.
In the mid-1980s, I spent an entire day with Michael Powell. Together we toured the Mamaroneck N.Y. area because he wanted to see where pioneer filmmaker D.W. Griffith worked. What a lovely man Powell was. A charming gentleman and such a talented film artist!
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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