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Tuesday Foreign Region Blu-ray disc Report: "The Edge of the World" (Michael Powell, 1937)

Michael Powell's 1937 film, something of a creative and business breakthrough for the pioneering filmmaker after a considerable and lengthy apprenticeship, as it were, churning out "quota quickies" (British B pictures, that is; cheap product contrived to fulfill the obligations of the U.K.'s film industry under 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, stipulating that a certain percentage of film distributed within the Kingdom be actual product made in Britain), rather teems with contradictions—extradiegetic ones, mostly. The film that marked the beginning of Powell's storied and colorful career as a cinematic maverick, conceived in the spirit of arduous adventure, is the tale of a way of life ending. It is about the proud—too proud, it happens—people of the fictional island of Hirta, a Hebridean spot so remote that it's no longer essentially livable and has to be deserted. It is telling that the film starts out with a frame story: Niall MacGinness, as Andrew Gray, is piloting a yacht that comes upon the remote isle; he glumly tells his vacationing employer and his wife that they'd be better off not stopping off there. His yachtsman boss, a bluff sort, insists they dock anyway. Once on the island, looking at the sparse, now empty structures, Andrew sees the ghosts of those he left the island with, and those he left behind himself; the rest of the tale unfolds in flashback.

It is telling, too, that once the flashback tale concludes, the picture does not return to its frame story but leaves the viewer hanging with the dilemmas that have played out before us: families turned against each other; new life coming under arduous, alien conditions; the stubbornness that makes forward movement impossible; the hole left by the absence of a stubborn loved one who has more or less willed himself to his doom All this in less than 80 minutes, and enshrouded in a chilly greyscale landscape of cloud and stone that freezes and intoxicates. Made under conditions that could not hyperbolically be described as "nuts," there was never a film that had created such an atmosphere before this one, save perhaps for the climax of Griffith's Way Down East, nor was there anything to come close to it afterwards, save maybe I Know Where I'm Going!, that film itself a partial Powell project, a fruit of his collaborations with Emeric Pressburger, who he was to work with for the first time not too long after completing World.

Telling, too, finally, that the bluff and game yachtsman at the film's opening is played by Powell himself, and that the wife of the yachtsman is played by Frankie Powell, then the filmmaker's wife. A film of such incredible richness emerging from relatively unpromising industrial wonder Powell's first book was an account of its making, initial publication of which coincided with the film's release.

I think the only way that BFI's wonderful video division could have made its recent Blu-ray disc edition of The Edge of the World more comprehensive would maybe have been to include a downloadable PDF of that book, which is sadly once again out of print but still obtainable. (Powell also discusses the making of the picture in A Life In Movies, the first volume in his wonderful two-book autobiography, if you're interested, which you definitely should be.) As it is, the Region B locked region-free, and hence playable on all Blu-ray machines, disc contains an exceptionally good looking version of the picture, possibly the best rendering latter-day viewers could possibly have of it; even the "alternate footage" included is pretty sharp (indeed, the two snapshots I took off of my plasma display, seen directly above, are from that material, not the film proper). The commentary for the feature has contributions from Powell scholar Ian Christie, film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who is Powell's widow and a faithful overseer of his magnificent legacy, as well as a treasure trove of both Powelliana and general filmmaking wisdom, and Daniel Day-Lewis, who reads passages from Powell's text on the making of the film. Home movies, alternate footage, the affecting and warm 1979 documentary Return to the Edge of the World are also included. In the package's booklet are great stills, an essay by Christie and a contemporary review of the film by C.A. Lejeune, and more. A most enjoyable master class, and an object lesson in institutional thinking and clout at its most effective. A package to savor and cherish, for certain.

A friend who worked for Powell observed that the actor John Laurie, who appears in Edge — as well as Colonel Blimp and The 39 Steps — would always greet new acquaintances by telling them about his triumph as Hamlet. So I was amused to see Return to the Edge of the World, where an octogenarian Laurie alights from a helicopter, strides up to the camera, and immediately tells us about his Hamlet…

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