TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH is a fairly unique and highly engrossing "docu-noir" starring Dick Powell as a San Francisco based U.S. Treasury agent on the trail of an opium ring.
It should perhaps be mentioned at the outset that this film is intricately plotted and features an international cast of largely unknown actors. It requires close attention and for that reason I don't recommend watching it when tired or distracted! On the other hand, I should also mention that I had to watch the movie in multiple sittings, and it felt like a good novel was waiting for me; I was anxious to get back to it so I could see the next chapter unfold.
The film begins in shocking fashion, especially given the year the film was made, as from a distance Commissioner Barrows (Dick Powell) watches a hundred men -- slaves bound for the opium trade -- thrown to their death at sea when the U.S. Coast Guard gets too close. This disturbing scene explains Barrows' motivation to follow the trail to its end point and prepares the viewer to settle in patiently as Barrows travels from San Francisco to China, Egypt, Lebanon, and Cuba, with the suspenseful climax taking place on a ship off the coast of New York. Films such as this no doubt inspired the onscreen maps used in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) decades later!
In his travels Barrows meets the mysterious Ann Grant (Signe Hasso) and her orphaned charge, Shu Pan (Maylia).
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is the help Barrows receives from his international counterparts, played by Vladimir Sokoloff, Marcel Journet, Luis Van Rooten, and more. (I didn't recognize Sokoloff, who plays Barrows' contact in China.) I enjoyed the theme of postwar international cooperation and the variety of characters who each had a significant role to play in smashing the ring.
The film becomes more suspenseful as Barrows closes in on unraveling the opium plot. Some of the smugglers' methods are quite fascinating. Along the way three of the suspects commit suicide, two of them in rather stunning fashion for 1948.
Indeed, according to the original New York Times review and other online sources, the producers had to obtain a Production Code waiver to even be able to address the issue of drug trafficking on screen. The Times said "emphatically" that the film was "exemplary in its treatment of this evil business," praising the film's "intelligence" and "honesty."
The movie is filmed in a style reminiscent of Fox's THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945), which coincidentally also starred Signe Hasso. The film fairly seamlessly blends scenes with Powell and the other actors into extensive second unit footage which has a documentary look, and it's all held together with Powell's voiceover narration and the aforementioned use of maps. The running time is an hour and 49 minutes.
Powell is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors. Barrows isn't a flashy role like his wisecracking ex-con from CRY DANGER (1951), but Powell is just right as the dedicated agent who'd rather be back home tending his rose garden but won't let up until the job is finished.
TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH was directed by Robert Stevenson, whose credits ranged from the Welles-Fontaine version of JANE EYRE (1943) to a significant number of Disney films, most importantly MARY POPPINS (1964).
This Columbia film is not currently available on DVD or VHS, but it's been shown in the past on Turner Classic Movies. (My great thanks to Kristina for enabling me to see it!) TCM has clips from the film available online.
Leonard Maltin and Steven Scheuer both give TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH 3-1/2 stars, with Maltin praising it as a "fast-moving thriller" with "good acting," while Scheuer says "Intricate plotting keeps interest on high in this thrilling melodrama. Excellent."
This is a film which deserves to be better known and more widely available. I hope that in the future it will have a DVD release and accompanying publicity so that it can be discovered by new audiences.