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Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Edge of Eternity (1959)


Director: Donald Siegel
Writers: Knut Swenson and Richard Collins, from a story by Ben Markson and Knut Swenson
Stars: Cornel Wilde, Victoria Shaw and Mickey Shaughnessy


I’ve been wanting to get my teeth into a project I call Dry Heat Obscurities for quite some time now and here’s where I get going with it. I’ll be alternating it going forward with my Weird Wednesdays project, so expect one review from each of those projects every other Wednesday. This one grew out of a conversation with local Arizona film critic Bill Pierce at the Haunted Hamburger, during the first year of the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival, and it revolves around all those other films that were shot here in Arizona over the decades, that weren’t the westerns that everyone expects. The spark for the conversation was my viewing of an obscure 1968 thriller called The Name of the Game is Kill!, which had been shot in Jerome, Clarkdale and Sedona, with Jack Lord and Susan Strasberg. I knew there were others, as I’d already reviewed Violent Saturday, a Richard Fleischer picture shot in Bisbee in 1955 with Victor Mature and Lee Marvin, but how many? Well, Bill threw out some intriguing titles and research led to more.

This picture is a great example of what I was hoping to discover through this project. For a start, I’d never heard of the film, even though it was a big deal. It was released by a major studio, Columbia Pictures, in 1959. It had a famous director, Don Siegel of Dirty Harry fame, credited here as Donald Siegel. It starred actors I knew, though I’m talking less about Cornel Wilde, Victoria Shaw and Mickey Shaughnessy in the lead roles and more about character actors like Edgar Buchanan and Jack Elam; the latter is a local boy, born in Miami, a small town near Globe that’s been getting smaller since the thirties (it’s the location of the short film, Black Gulch). It’s an interesting, though flawed, thriller which becomes all the more interesting because of a strong use of Arizona scenery. The opening credits highlight that it was, ‘filmed at one of the Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon, in CinemaScope’. It puts the towns of Kingman and Oatman to good use too, in which Clark Gable and Carole Lombard married and honeymooned respectively.

In fact, it goes further than merely using Arizona scenery to use real Arizona history, not least the short lived exploitation of the Bat Cave guano mine by the US Guano Corporation. The cave was discovered back in the thirties by someone who was boating the Colorado river. Guano is bat shit, but it’s valuable as fertiliser because it’s rich in nitrogen. A mining engineer estimated a deposit of 100,000 tons, much less than the 500,000 tons that Jack Elam’s character suggests in this film but much more than there turned out to be in reality. Most of the cave was actually filled with limestone rubble, with a mere 1,000 tons of guano. US Guano bought the cave in 1957 and spent 14 months building a cableway to carry the guano 7,500 feet across the river and 2,500 feet upwards. Columbia shot a number of key scenes on the ‘dancing bucket’ tram car, including the finalé, but the mine closed a year later. At $100 a ton, US Guano could only earn $100,000 of their $3.5m investment back, making it a loss as a mine but a gain as a location.

We take a while to get there, because we kick things off by running a car off the rim of the Grand Canyon. Burnett Guffey, Siegel’s cinematographer, had already been showing us just how vast the Grand Canyon is by panning his CinemaScope camera around as the opening credits rolled. Once they wrap up, Siegel introduces a couple of actors. One of them stops his car to look over the rim with binoculars, while the other sneaks out of nowhere, releases the handbrake and pushes the car right at him. Surprisingly, it’s the prospective victim who survives, albeit not for long. He’s soon found hanged in the old Kendon Mining Company office up in Oatman. Police Deputy Les Martin might have stopped the murder if he’d listened to old Eli’s ranting about someone up there, but old Eli tells these tales all the time and so Martin chases the speeding Janice Kendon down the winding roads to the bottom of the mountain instead. This works well to kill off our mystery man, set Martin up for future trouble and introduce the leading lady.
In fact, Edge of Eternity starts very well across the board. The scenery is amazing, especially in colour and a format as widescreen as CinemaScope. Cornel Wilde is a laid back but clearly capable deputy and the small town feel only builds as he starts to investigate in Kingman. A description gets him a name, R. E. Wallace, and a hotel, the El Trovatore; Wallace’s room has been ransacked. The El Trovatore still operates today, located on historic Route 66 which at this point is known as Andy Devine Avenue, because the actor, who was born in Flagstaff, was brought up in Kingman from the age of one; the town also holds an annual Andy Devine Days rodeo and parade, the latter of which is usually over two miles long. The early scenes use Kingman magnificently, with other prominent locations such as the Mohave County Court House (there’s a later goof when this is referenced as the more expected ‘Mojave’, the Spanish spelling) and a few local businesses that may or may not still exist.

Best of all, of course, is the US Guano cableway, for a whole slew of reasons. It’s awesomely cinematic, for one, and it actually looks like Cornel Wilde and Jack Elam are right there on the edge, watching the tram car slowly rise towards them. The biggest problem with the early scenes is the rear projection work, mostly during the ‘high speed’ car chase, which on these winding roads means a blistering 45mph (even if the speedos say twenty). That problem isn’t apparent up on the rim looking down at the Bat Cave mine and the tension we feel that high up is exactly what we should feel. Elam is young here, not to mention tall and rangy, surprisingly so as he’d already reached the second half of his career, by film count. Comparing him here to The Night of the Grizzly, a mere seven years later, is unreal; he’s exactly as we expect him in the latter film but nothing like it here. He gets a decent amount of time too, which he puts to good use. I mentioned in my review of The Villain that he deserved bigger roles; this certainly backs that up.
The problem is that the story takes its sweet time to move forward. We almost feel for Sam Houghton, the County Attorney, when he excoriates Deputy Martin on the stand for getting nowhere, partly because he’s right and partly because there are three bodies at this point in the story, but Houghton’s too much of an ass and Martin is too much of an honest man. I think we’re supposed to be more on his side than we actually are, but it’s really his burgeoning romantic interest, Janice Kendon, who breaks the case in a few different scenes. Some synopses suggest that they team up, but that never really happens; it’s just that Martin rarely progresses in scenes that don’t revolve around her explaining something important. She’s Victoria Shaw, an Australian actress who also starred in The Crimson Kimono the same year for Sam Fuller. She’s flighty here, especially compared to Martin, and we wonder if he’d liven up or she’d settle down if the relationship continued. She’s good at flighty but it’s hard to get a grip on her because of that.

I don’t want to spoil the movie, though where it goes is never really surprising. I will say, though, that the story revolves around gold because that’s key to the Arizona setting as well. Janice’s father heads up the Kendon Mining Company, at whose office R. E. Wallace’s body was found hanging, and her brother Bob is a geologist, even though he spends the majority of his time drunk as a skunk down at Scotty O’Brien’s bar. Mining is in the family blood, it seems, and Janice surprises Deputy Martin up at Oatman with an explanation of why the town is empty of people when there’s still $20m of gold under them. I looked this up and she’s talking about War Production Board Limitation Order L-208, which in 1942 restricted the mining of ‘non-essential metals’. Miners moved to copper mines, because that could be used for shells and bullets. The last working gold mine in Arizona shut down in 1998 and it was the Gold Road mine in, you guessed it, Oatman. We see the Gold Road in Edge of Eternity.
I was fascinated by these little historical details, which had extra spice for being outlined by the leading lady rather than her male counterpart. I was less fascinated by the mystery, which is so slow in progressing that we’re likely to forget about it on a number of occasions, like when we puzzle instead about Les and Janice’s date night. After a quick stop at Scotty’s, if I wasn’t hallucinating, they track down what must surely be the world’s only cha-cha dance floor in a Chinese restaurant with a Mexican band. Kingman must have been a hip and happening place back in 1959! There are other diversions too, like the skeleton of an antique car that Eli drives or the periodic trips by plane through the Grand Canyon, which run on far longer than they should but are still glorious to watch anyway. There’s even an amazing scene in which the bad guy, who I won’t name, actually hits exactly what he’s aiming at, holing the engine of the only car that can pursue him and from a moving vehicle too! But at this point, the mystery is solved.

It’s here that we launch instead into our action finalé and it’s a peach. The villain, who has kidnapped Janice, finds that his escape route has been cut off so detours to the US Guano cable head right up there on the rim of the Grand Canyon, so that he can hijack its tram car to carry him across the Colorado river. Deputy Martin catches up right in the nick of time and leaps onto the back as it sets off, no less than 4,750 feet up in the air. Don’t forget the tram car’s nickname: the ‘dancing bucket’. Imagine, if you will, what that translates to when the hero and villain face off over the damsel in distress, while attempting not to fall to their deaths so far below. Like the earlier, much safer, scenes with Wilde and Elam, some of these are obviously real and the product of stuntwork, though the close-ups are still rear projection. IMDb lists Chuck Couch, Rosemary Johnston and Guy Way as stunt performers and I salute them from the safety of my chair, where vertigo is not an option. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like way up there!
It’s hard to imagine what Edge of Eternity would have been like either, had it not been shot in such a spectacular location. We begin and end with the Grand Canyon as our backdrop and, even as we detour into Kingman and Oatman, it’s never far from our minds. Strip it out of the picture and we don’t just lose the finalé, we lose the majesty of the film, leaving just a minor story with a mildly interesting set of characters. Burnett Guffey’s cinematography would have been strong in any other location (he’d had one Oscar already for From Here to Eternity and he’d pick up another for Bonnie and Clyde), but a hole in the ground as big as the Grand Canyon is a gift to someone of his talents. Yet, Wilde plays Deputy Martin like he’s in a B-movie and he doesn’t fit with Shaw’s channeling of Deborah Kerr. Edgar Buchanan and Jack Elam are great in minor roles, but Mickey Shaughnessy doesn’t get enough to justify his third billing and the script by Knut Swenson (Marion Hargrove) and Richard Collins lets them down instead of building them up.

The big winner here is clearly the state of Arizona and its scenic northwest, which I was very happy to see. There were other films shot in Arizona earlier than Violent Saturday and this. Lust for Gold also explored our gold-mining history by pitting Ida Lupino, Gig Young and Glenn Ford against the famous Lost Dutchman Mine in 1949; Edgar Buchanan showed up for that one as well, which saw scenes shot in Apache Junction, Florence and Phoenix, as well as the Superstition Mountains, the Lost Dutchman National Park and the Agua Fria National Monument. As unlikely a candidate for an Arizona shoot as David and Bathsheba, with as unlikely a candidate for King David as Gregory Peck, was shot in Nogales in 1951 with 6’ 8” Lithuanian wrestler Walter Talun as Goliath. I may go back to take a look at those, but I’m mostly going to work forward from the late fifties to my cut-off year of 1987 because Raising Arizona made it kind of obvious that films other than westerns were shot here. See you in two weeks for The Mountain Road!

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