Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Movie: To the Ends of the Earth (1948)

This L.A. Times poll asking who made the best Philip Marlowe blew through my Twitter feed like the Santa Ana winds over the weekend. Why it popped now after six months is one of those internet mysteries.

I voted for Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet. He’s running fifth, well behind Humphrey Bogart. I love The Big Sleep, but Bogie makes a better Sam Spade while Powell’s song-and-dance-man jauntiness suits Chandler’s shamus. (Not on the list is Danny Glover, who played Marlowe in a 1995 TV adaptation of “Red Wind,” anticipating author Carol Wolper’s idea of a non-Caucasian in the role.)

Casting my ballot made me want to watch Powell, so off to the DVR I went. To the Ends of the Earth initially seems like Columbia’s answer to the documentary-style crime dramas popularized by Fox; the first person we meet, after all, is head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry J. Anslinger. But Robert Stevenson, who’d go on to become the primary director of Walt Disney’s live action films of the 1960s, has something more expansive in mind.

Powell’s narcotics agent is pursuing a freighter suspected of smuggling drugs when the other ship’s captain literally drops anchor – with 100 Chinese slave laborers lashed to its chain and sent to watery graves. Revulsed by this act, Powell vows to smash the ring. Its global reach will send him to Shanghai, Cairo, Beirut, and Havana before Powell races to New York in the hopes of stopping a massive shipment of opium from slipping into the United States. Along the way he matches wits with a mysterious woman tied to the ring, played by Signe Hasso.

The movie is a slick, fast-moving affair. During Powell’s daring nighttime assault on a cliff in search of a hidden poppy field, I finally figured out why it seemed so familiar. A wisecracking hero engaged in globetrotting derring-do while squaring off against powerful, ruthless villains, pausing only to thaw an ice queen who could have designs on his life? To the Ends of the Earth is the proto-James Bond movie, made fifteen years before Sean Connery took on Dr. No. Some templates simply work.