Film: Very Good
Extras: Very Good
Label: Twilight Time
Released: February 14, 2017
Genre: Suspense / Action
Synopsis: A series of murders in a dying mining town push a deputy to rise above his personal shortcomings, culminating in a death-defying fight over the Grand Canyon!
Special Features: Audio Commentary with film historian C. Courtney Joyner and Nick Redman / Isolated Mono Music Track / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.
A lesser-known film by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), Edge of Eternity began as a spec script called The Dancing Bucket (more on that shortly), written for character actor Jack Elam (The Man from Laramie, Support Your Local Sheriff!), but without funding and star power, the project failed to find a producer until Siegel and star Cornel Wilde were attached.
Siegel was hugely prolific in the 1950s, having also directed The Gunrunners, Hound Dog Man, and “Brock Callahan,” an episode of TV’s Adventure Showcase, all in 1959, so it’s no surprise Edge clocks in at 80 mins., which is an efficient length.
Although Cornel Wilde (Leave Her to Heaven) is the top-billed star, he’s really co-starring with the Grand Canyon; it’s the sprawling backdrop where the first murder occurs in the film’s striking opening sequence, and the killer is dispatched to canyon depths in the gripping finale.
Ostensibly a low key whodunnit, it’s also a discrete commentary on the ephemeral nature of pop-up towns near recently discovered natural resources, thriving as employment needs skyrocket to meet market demands, and withering when the resources have dwindled and the town’s very raison d’etre is unprofitable, if not pointless.
Unsurprisingly, the town’s backstory is more intriguing that the generic characters: with government-controlled gold pricing, the town waits for a return to free market conditions, and for the interim, relies on the extraction of guano (bat shit) from a large cave. The town core is solvent and moderately populous, but to the fringes lie lonesome homes, long winding dirt roads, and relics of the economic boom years reduced to sun-scorched ruins.
Patrolling the bleak landscape is Deputy Les Martin (Wilde), whose career becomes endangered when he chases after a sexy broad driving a brand spanking new Thunderbird, instead of hurrying to a prospector’s home where an older man claims to have fought off and booted an assailant into the canyon.
The broad, Janice Kendon (underrated actress Victoria Shaw) is the daughter of a local industrialist, and like many tales of wealthy families controlling the livelihoods of local folk, there’s a bored son who spends most of his time drinking at the local watering hole. (A lot of drinking happens in this film, especially as characters are ready to get behind the wheel.)
The romance between Les and Janice follows a traditional trajectory, but it also lopes along, causing the genuinely exciting finale to happen in the last 10-15 mins; most of what appears between the superb opening scene and finale is too low-key, and some background material on Les’ own dark past should’ve been pushed closer to the midsection. As a central character, Les is fine, but he doesn’t become interesting until much later, when further murders jeopardize his career.
Janice is more intriguing for being a well to-do daughter, educated and independent-minded, but at the present time will not be allowed by her father take the helms of the company because she’s a woman. Although never overtly stated in the film, Shaw’s performance touches upon that specific dilemma, and in an especially memorable speech that’s functionally designed to inform Les and us of the town’s mining history, she waxes nostalgically for the sounds, sights, and smell of the loud bustling town – an unsubtle argument as to why she deserves to steer the company instead of her wastrel brother.
Siegel’s use of widescreen with ace cinematographer Burnett Guffey (All the King’s Men, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Learning Tree) is masterful, exploiting the beauty and danger of the Canyon, which is always prominent in the background or in blatant montages designed to attract tourists; not unlike a Cinerama travelogue, Edge features plenty of aerial shots from plane and helicopter POVs, flying in and around the canyons.
(One can argue that by 1959, Cinerama and its travelogue product was on its way out, and Fox, owners of CinemaScope, must have loved the way Guffey used their process as the definitive and affordable widescreen format that could marry drama + travelogue material in one straight narrative.)
The film’s opening has a peculiar Hitchcockian quality: a massive wide shot – itself the tail-end of a stunning 360 degree pan of the valley that carries the film’s Main Titles – where two points of interest – an approach car, and a figure who hides behind a boulder – ultimately converge for a man-to-man fight. The finale could also be seen as Hitchcockian: Les may be a cop, but he’s also an ordinary man suddenly forced to propel himself (literally, by leaping) onto the gondola (aka ‘the dancing bucket’) where miners and guano are loaded and hauled up the valley, and engage in an extraordinary death-defying battle.
The men scrambling atop the gondola and Janice barely avoiding death from a sudden slip form an amazing topper to a series of preceding chase montages involving cars, helicopters, and planes. The stunts are first-rate, and Siegel again demonstrates his knack for choreographing action and exploiting the danger of characters literally hanging onto a swaying metal bucket high above a valley that’s already claimed a few victims.
The audio commentary by film historian C. Courtney Joyner and Nick Redman is fact-filled, and provides plenty of production details on a film that probably few have seen, if not in widescreen. Sony’s transfer is stunning, preserving the film’s gritty grain, and the deep reds, amber, and dense blacks that recall Oliver Stone’s U-Turn (1997), a film in which the director used reversal film to get the very same look of slightly scorched colours and incredibly deep blacks and reds.
Shaw’s dresses are fifties, stylish, and were perhaps deliberately designed to highlight her character’s presence: whether it’s a red, green or a floral pattern, the transfer’s clarity and colour saturations cause her wardrobe to pop onscreen.
As Joyner and Redman point out, the cast is filled with many fine veteran character actors, and Elam appears in a rare non-psycho role as a miner – a nice variation.
Perhaps the weakest element in Edge is the score, which varies from strikingly inventive – the orchestral colours in an amphibious plane landing is quite remarkable – to just plain weird. Daniele Amfitheatrof tends to embrace the level of clamor typical of an Albert Glasser quickie (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), and an electric bass guitar is eased into the film’s final third which blends more classical orchestral writing with sort-of pop-jazz.
Perhaps the strangest musical choice in the film is the antique honky-tonk music that plays in the town’s lone bar run by Scotty O’Brien (From Here to Eternity‘s Mickey Shaughnessy): in an era of rock, pop, and jazz-pop, why in the world would anyone – especially a kid – want to get hammered in an environment that feels like a set from a B-western?
Amfitheatrof’s score is preserved in mono on a separate audio track, and Julie Kirgo’s liner notes provide additional context to this small gem that may not be one of Siegel’s best films, but represents filmmaking skills which he’d refine in late career masterpieces like Dirty Harry (1971), Charley Varrick (1973), and Escape from Alcatraz (1979).
Actress Victoria Shaw ultimately moved into television, but best-known among her handful of films are The Eddy Duchin Story (1956), The Crimson Kimono (1959), Alvarez Kelly (1966), and playing the Medieval Queen in Westworld (1973).
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review