Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece, an associate professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She is the author of The Optical Vacuum: Spectatorship and Modernized American Theater Architecture (Oxford University Press, 2018) and the co-editor of Ends of Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2020).
Above one of the many neo-classical governmental buildings that populate Washington, DC, an American flag waves proudly. “United States Department of Treasury,” the voiceover intones. “That’s right, the place they make money.” Dissolves bring us inside where assembly lines stack and sort sheets of cash, “that green stuff,” the narrator drones, “you scramble to get, and then give back at the end of the year, so cheerfully.” But Columbia Pictures’s 1948 thriller To the Ends of the Earth isn’t about money or taxes. Or, at least, it isn’t about their physical presence. Instead, it’s about unassuming quiet objects. It’s about secret circulations of global capital flows. And in particular, it’s about an “innocent, pretty little thing”: the poppy flower and its dark passenger, opium.
Following Agent Michael Barrows, the narrator and protagonist, through China, Egypt, and Lebanon before returning to the harbors of New York, the movie tracks across opium manufacturing and trade routes while regularly referencing the drug onscreen—shocking for a Hollywood film produced during the era of the Production Code. And while the movie has been mostly forgotten, never released on DVD let alone streaming services, it’s an important document about the ties that bind drug policy, governance, censorship, mass media, and the twilight of the Hollywood studio system.