Friday, July 23, 2010

To the Ends of the Earth (Columbia, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was To the Ends of the Earth, a 1948 Columbia production starring Dick Powell as a nark — yes, he’s a high-ranking agent for what was then the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Narcotics, and he’s based in San Francisco and is supposed to be embarking on a vacation when he receives a report that a ship known to be involved in the illegal opiates trade has been working its way off the west coast of South America, up past Mexico and off southern California, and is heading his way. He gets a ride on a Coast Guard cutter (the Coast Guard was then also a part of the Treasury Department) and catches up to the ship, the Kira Maru — though the framing sequence featuring Powell’s character, Michael Barrows, reminiscing about one of his old cases is set in 1948, the case he’s remembering (and narrating to us via voice-over) took place in 1935, when Japan had already occupied Manchuria and had established influence on the Chinese mainland, which is how the vessel Barrows spots, the Kira Maru, is registered in Shanghai but has a Japanese name (and the captain, whom Barrows sees on the bridge and is certain he’ll recognize if he sees him again, is Japanese).

The reason the captain makes such an impression on Barrows is that he’s carrying a cargo of undocumented aliens aboard, 100 Chinese being held in slavery and chained to each other, and with the Coast Guard giving chase (and too spooked to realize that he was already outside U.S. territorial waters and therefore the Coast Guard couldn’t do a damned thing to him without breaking the law themselves) the captain releases the chains and all 100 Chinese, weighted down by the chains as well as each other’s bodies, sink to the bottom of the sea and drown in one of the most chilling scenes put on film in the Production Code era. Barrows gets permission to go to Shanghai and see if he can find the Kira Maru’s captain and also learn what he was supposed to do with the opium, which was being grown in a poppy field in Egypt, shipped to Shanghai for processing into opium paste, and then further refined into a more compact morphine base for smuggling via Havana into New York and its end users.

The film is a weird mix of Left and Right politics — or rather what would be Left and Right politics now; 1948 audiences probably read it more ambiguously — reflecting the political orientations of its makers: Powell was a member of the pro-blacklist Hollywood Right (organized as the “Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals”) while producer and uncredited co-screenwriter Sidney Buchman (best known today as the writer of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the producer of A Song to Remember and The Jolson Story) was an out-and-out Communist, not just a falsely named blacklist victim or a Left-wing sympathizer but the real hammer-and-sickle McCoy. One of the fascinating things about this movie is its frankly pro-globalization agenda — at a time when it was the Left that supported globalization in general and the United Nations in particular and the Right who saw them as part of the international Communist conspiracy to subvert and take over the Free World — the film goes out of its way to dramatize the extent to which the illegal drug problem is far greater than the law-enforcement capability of any single country, and therefore everyone in the world must work together to trace the criminals across the world and apprehend them.

Indeed, the film begins and ends with international meetings of the world’s officials dealing with narcotics, including documentary footage of the notorious Harry J. Anslinger, founder of the Bureau of Narcotics, playing himself and taking part in these conferences (held at a surprisingly elaborate United Nations temporary headquarters on Long Island before they moved into their big building in New York City on the East River), and Powell’s character is high enough in the leadership of the Bureau that he reports to Anslinger personally. The film follows a single narcotics shipment across the world from Egypt to China to Cuba to New York, and throughout the story the narcotics officials in each country want to apprehend their locals and confiscate the drugs, and Barrows keeps talking them out of it because he wants to follow the drugs to the end of their distribution chain so he can arrest the higher-ups who control the entire ring. (There’s a fascinating scene in which Barrows’ opposite number in Cuba’s drug enforcement agency asks him how he can let the millions of dollars’ worth of narcotics currently in his country be smuggled out, and Barrows wins his reluctant approval — though his misgivings are recalled when the smugglers hit on an ingenious method of getting them off the ship without having to get them through New York customs and the good guys almost lose track of them completely.)

While all of this is going on Barrows is sometimes escorting and sometimes tracking a mysterious woman named Ann Grant (Signe Hasso), whom he’s convinced is the mysterious “Jane Hawks” in charge of the entire smuggling ring — her now-dead husband was an engineer who designed and built the irrigation system that allowed the crooks to grow opium poppies in the Egyptian desert; Ann is also traveling with a Chinese immigrant girl named Shu Pan Wu (and played by someone billed only as “Maylia”) who’s supposed to be given a home in San Francisco after fleeing war-torn Shanghai — only, in a final reversal [spoiler alert!] that stayed with me from my first viewing of this film on the “Dialing for Dollars” movies-on-TV show in the Bay Area in the early 1970’s, it turns out that Shu Pan Wu, not Ann Grant, is the mastermind of the drug ring: her motive was loyalty to her real country, Japan (she’s half-Japanese and that’s the half that she’s loyal to), who wanted to smuggle drugs into the U.S. and the rest of the Western world to weaken their will to resist when World War II finally occurred and Japan and the U.S. ended up fighting on opposite sides of it. When I read Joe Gores’ 1970’s novel Hammett — a fictional mystery using the real-life Dashiell Hammett as a detective investigating mysterious crimes in San Francisco in 1928 — I couldn’t help but wonder if he was ripping off To the Ends of the Earth when he made the character of Crystal Tam, a teenage Chinese prostitute who’s introduced stoically enduring being gang-raped by three of her clients, the ultimate head of his criminal organization (and, at least in Gores’ fictional universe, the inspiration for Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon).

To the Ends of the Earth is also an unusual movie in that virtually everyone in it is in disguise: Barrows has taken a false name and identity as an importer and salesman of Oriental rugs; his contact with the Chinese narcotics bureau, Lum Chi Chow (Vladimir Sokoloff), maintains a cover identity running a shop selling tasteless chinoiserie knickknacks to tourists in Shanghai; the conspirators in the drug racket in Shanghai include tour guide George C. Shannon (John Hoyt) — Barrows goes on his group’s tour of Shanghai and one of the gang members picks his pockets and retrieves his notebook, thereby “outing” him and setting up a scene in which the baddies beat him up (well, it wouldn’t be a Dick Powell thriller if he didn’t get beaten up at some point in the plot — and I joked that as he came to, he’d be saying, “I had a terrible dream! I dreamed I was in the middle of a Busby Berkeley production number!”) — and rickshaw company owner Nicholas Sokim (Ludwig Donath), who’s sheltering the captain of the Kira Maru by giving him a job as a rickshaw runner and is also maintaining on his premises the lab needed to refine the raw opium on its first stage into a marketable narcotic drug.

Virtually every character we meet is involved in the drug business on either the crooks’ or the law’s side — one starts to wonder if there are any innocent bystanders left — and To the Ends of the Earth (effectively directed by Robert Stevenson from the script by Jay Richard Kennedy and the uncredited Buchman) doesn’t really have the moral ambiguity to qualify as film noir, but it’s certainly an entertaining thriller that’s less well known than it should be. Almost certainly it got on TV in the early 1970’s because of its striking similarity to The French Connection — also about a militant cop tracing a narcotics shipment around the world — though I think To the Ends of the Earth, despite its lack of anything like the baroque car chase that’s the first thing anybody thinks of about The French Connection, is a better movie overall and probably closer to the truth of how the drug laws are enforced (or at least were enforced at the time it was made).