Diary of an On-Edge Director
He would go on to make many of his best-remembered films – including Flaming Star (1960, a Twilight Time title), Madigan (1968), Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), Dirty Harry (1971) and the underrated The Black Windmill (1974) – in the widescreen 2:35 aspect ratio, moviemaking maverick Don Siegel took on the expansive photographic format grudgingly for the first time, on the edge-of-your-seat mystery thriller Edge of Eternity (1959), which debuted in theaters 58 years ago today. He would protest in his posthumously published 1993 autobiography A Siegel Film: “I don’t like the proportions at all. Look at the great paintings in museums: they are not in the shape of Band-aids. I prefer the older, rectangular aperture.” But in truth, the occasion demanded the use of Cinemascope, because its celebrated location naturally cried out for it, and working closely with Academy Award®-winning cinematographer Burnett Guffey (previously From Here to Eternity, subsequently Bonnie and Clyde), the tight, taut caper would prove visually captivating, particularly with regard to its perilous climactic cable car bucket fight sequence high above the canyon floor. Siegel recalled: “The setting of Edge of Eternity is one of the wonders of the world – the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The producer of the picture was Ken Sweet. All I knew about him was that he was a sound editor. I read the script [by Knut Swenson and Richard Collins] at Jack Elam’s house. I liked the idea of doing a picture that took place in the Grand Canyon, but soon found out that the various studios were not interested in making a picture with Ken Sweet at the helm -- a man who had absolutely no experience in producing pictures. Ken wanted Jack to play the lead. Jack was an excellent actor, but certainly no star and all the studios turned down the suggestion. Columbia had a commitment with Cornel Wilde and was interested in Cornel playing the lead, even though he was recuperating from a detached retina. They wanted me to direct the film, which was full of excitement, action and which would play well against the fantastic beauty of the Grand Canyon. As a further incentive, I was given the title of ‘associate producer.’ I accepted, before I found out that I was being paid zilch for being an associate producer.” Populating the cast were players associated with either Columbia (leading lady Victoria Shaw and young studio contract player Rian Garrick) or Siegel (Elam, whom the director called “an excellent actor” and delivered solid work the year before in The Gun Runners), plus two others the filmmaker readily welcomed: Mickey Shaughnessy (“comic relief turned villain”) and Edgar Buchanan (“a former dentist, but sensational actor”).
There was also time for horseplay on the set, and there were consequences. Siegel (who admitted that “one of my many weaknesses is teasing. I couldn’t resist the temptation, particularly when everyone on the set was in on the gag”) relates the story of his having fun with one extra, an Arizona Sheriff’s Department deputy who boasted of “Hollywood experience,” whom he put through his paces playing a bloody assault victim on the set, making him go through elaborate make-up and scene-playing ordeals before calling a halt to that day’s shooting. “That night, the Mayor of Kingman [the Arizona shoot's location base] gave a dinner in our honor,” Siegel wrote. “I was called to the phone in the lobby of the motel.” Siegel heard the deputy’s voice on the other end: “‘You dirty S.O.B. You think you’re a wise guy…You made fun of me! I’m leaving for the motel. I’m going to shove my gun up your ass and keep pulling the trigger!’” He continued: “My heart beating furiously, I seated myself next to the Mayor. I turned around and stared at the street. [The “Hollywood deputy”] could skid to a stop directly opposite the back of my neck and fire away through the [motel’s street-facing] plate-glass window. I turned back to practice sliding underneath the table, as Cornel and his wife seated themselves opposite me. Wilde: ‘What are you looking for, Don?’ Me: ‘Oh, nothing. I dropped my napkin.’ (Cornel leans forward and studies me. Each time I hear a car, I flinch.) Wilde: ‘You look pale as a ghost. Are you feeling faint?’ (I shake my head.) Wilde: ‘Can I get you medical attention?’ Something clicked. Why was Cornel so concerned about my well-being? When I was on the phone, he wasn’t at the table. Most people didn’t know it, but Cornel was a great mimic. I almost fainted with relief. Me (gaining strength): ‘I enjoyed our telephone conversation. You have a dreadful Arizona accent.’ Silently, I swore revenge. On one of my many flights to the Grand Canyon with the bush pilot, I innocently asked Cornel if he’d like to join us. When we took off, Cornel sitting behind me, I waited until we gained altitude before taking the controls. I immediately pulled back on the stick, gaining altitude rapidly. Wilde (uneasily): ‘I didn’t know you flew.’ (The pilot is in on my plan and plays his part well.) Me (laughing maniacally): ‘One day, I’ll reach the heavens.’ Wilde: ‘You know I have a detached retina. This is not good for me.’ Me: ‘Really? Well, how about this?’ (I push the stick forward and the plane plunges straight down.) Wilde (screaming): ‘You’re crazy!’ The ground was rushing up to meet us at terrific speed. I was feeling queasy. I heard a moan from Cornel. I smiled. As the plane pulled out of the dive, I turned to him. Me: ‘You look pale as a ghost. Are you feeling faint?’ I must confess that no matter what happened from there on, nobody would feel as scared as I did from Cornel’s mimicry of the Hollywood deputy.” For more visceral, high-flying thrills, hitch a ride to the Edge of Eternity on a dizzying TT hi-def Blu-ray.