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Border Incident

Border Incident(1949)

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In light of the current national debate on the subject of illegal immigration, Anthony Mann's Border Incident (1949) comes across as an unusually timely thriller, in spite of being made nearly 60 years ago. Recently released on DVD by Warner Bros. as part of the Film Noir Classic Collection Volume Three, the film focuses on the abuse--on both sides of the border--of illegal migrant workers in Southern California during the time of the bracero guest worker program. In addition to its social theme, this stylish crime drama is principally of interest today as the first major studio film for director Mann and cinematographer John Alton, and one of the first American lead roles for Ricardo Montalban.

The story: America's Immigration & Naturalization Services and Mexico's PolicĂ­a Judicial Federal join forces to stop a gang of crooks who are smuggling Mexican migrant workers (called braceros) into the U.S., employing them illegally for substandard wages and then robbing and killing them when they cause trouble or try to get back to Mexico. Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) of the PJF goes undercover as a bracero and gains illegal passage across the border from Hugo Ulrich (Sig Ruman). He's put to work at the farm of Owen Parkson (Howard Da Silva), an outwardly respectable businessman in league with Ulrich who supplies illegal workers to several Southern California growers. Meanwhile, Jack Bearnes (George Murphy) of the INS follows Rodriguez's path and poses as a thief in possession of stolen work permits to infiltrate Parkson's organization. The cautious Parkson is not so quick to accept the stranger and secretly starts to check his story, while his foreman Jeff Amboy (Charles McGraw) grows suspicious of Rodriguez. As Parkson's efficient and ruthless organization nears the truth, both government agents find their lives in danger.

Although Warners has chosen to classify Border Incident as film noir, story-wise it's a police procedural, following the familiar pattern of identifying a social problem caused by a criminal element and then depicting, step-by-step, the techniques employed by law enforcement to restore order. The story device of agents putting themselves at risk by infiltrating the crooks' gang, with suspense revolving about the threat of exposure, was in vogue at the time; other films released around the same period employing the same idea include The Street With No Name (1948), White Heat (1949) and Anthony Mann's own T-Men (1948). Border Incident's script adds little to the basic established formula; the result is that the story is engaging but slightly predictable, a well-crafted minor variation on a crime movie staple.

The film does differentiate itself from others in the genre by choosing a rural backdrop and an offbeat subject matter based on then-current labor policies. The Bracero Program was initiated in 1942 to legally bring in Mexican "guest workers" to fill a need for agricultural labor made acute by the drafting of many American workers. Deductions from the braceros' paychecks were to be placed in savings accounts in Mexico as an incentive to return at the end of their contracts rather than stay in the U.S. illegally. Unfortunately, human rights abuses tarnished the reputation of the program, and few braceros ever received the money promised by the savings accounts, leading to bitter lawsuits that continue to this day. Border Incident heavily fictionalizes some of the problems with the Bracero Program and depicts a satisfying resolution that, sadly, never occurred in real life.

The element that truly makes Border Incident memorable is its visual style, the product of Anthony Mann's direction and the cinematography of John Alton. The two had previously worked together on Raw Deal (1947) and T-Men (1948), tense, brutal, modestly budgeted films noir released by Eagle-Lion, as well as the historical drama Reign of Terror (1949). The success of the two noir films was doubtless responsible for their elevation to the "big leagues" of MGM and their assignment to Border Incident. Stylistically the film opens in the manner of the pseudo-documentary thrillers 20th Century Fox pioneered with 1945's The House on 92nd Street: we see a montage of Southern California and the Mexican border while a narrator delivers opening exposition. Once Rodriguez and Bearnes are assigned to the case, though, the film adopts the dark, moody style Mann and Alton used in their earlier noirs. Scenes are often set at night, illuminated by a single, harsh source--a flashlight, headlights, a bare overhead lightbulb, etc.- creating a high contrast look that sculpts the characters' faces in hard shadows, and surrounds them with impenetrable darkness that feels pregnant with incipient violence. On the basis of this film alone, one could understand why Alton is considered one of the masters of black & white cinematography.

Extreme close-ups are used to good effect, bringing the viewer uncomfortably close to the menace of the villains or the dread fear of the heroes. As film historian Dana Polan observes on his commentary track, Mann and Alton often divide up the frame compositionally, with a figure in the extreme foreground on one side and a figure in the background on the other. This often helps create a slightly unbalanced feel, a sense of tension and claustrophobia. When violence does erupt, Mann depicts it as sudden and brutal, without the slightest hint of Hollywood gloss. The film's most famous scene, the unexpected and horrific death of one of the major characters, is still shocking today. The climax is slightly disappointing because it isn't able to top the impact of that sequence (a couple of contrived plot twists don't help), but Mann's taut direction keeps the tension level high throughout.

The two leads deliver good performances in underwritten parts. The script only defines agent Bearnes through his work; there's no hint of a family or home life, leaving George Murphy precious little to work with. The future California Senator lacks the star power and charisma of someone like Robert Mitchum or James Cagney to spice up the part, but he does a fine job communicating Bearnes' dedication to his job, his loyalty to Rodriguez and his skill as an undercover operative. Top-billed Ricardo Montalban fares better. We don't learn much about the personal life of Rodriguez either, but we see him protecting the braceros and trying to enlighten them on how they are being mistreated, making his character warmer and more appealing. Montalban delivers a thoughtful and sympathetic performance that wins over the audience while also conveying the courage and quick wits that makes Rodriguez a good agent. Prior to playing Rodriguez, Montalban had starred in several Mexican films and been featured in a trio of fluffy MGM musicals. His strong work in Border Incident suggested a promising future as a lead, but instead Montalban found his niche as a busy and respected character actor in both film and television, while offscreen earning a reputation as one of Hollywood's true gentlemen. In the 1980's he won a new generation of fans by starring in the long-running Fantasy Island television series, appearing with Leslie Nielsen in the hit comedy The Naked Gun (1988) and delivering a spectacularly entertaining performance as the eponymous archenemy of William Shatner's Admiral Kirk in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Now in his mid-eighties and confined to a wheelchair, Montalban continues to do voiceover work in animation and makes occasional on-screen appearances, including the popular Spy Kids movies.

Howard Da Silva effectively plays Parkson as a man used to wielding power and being obeyed. He doesn't bluster or bully; he speaks calmly because he is supremely confident of his ability to control all situations. The supporting cast features a number of familiar faces delivering solid performances: gruff-voiced Charles McGraw as Parkson's cruel foreman; Arthur Hunnicutt, quietly menacing as the driver transporting braceros across the border; and Sig Ruman as Ulrich. Except for Montalban's dignified performance as Rodriguez, the portrayal of Mexicans in the film is badly dated, with most of the braceros depicted as passive, pious sheep needing to be led, while Arnold Moss and Alfonso Bedoya ("Gold Hat" in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) play Ulrich's thugs as ignorant, childlike and greedy.

Warner Home Video's DVD of Border Incident features an excellent transfer that reproduces John Alton's cinematography as well as could be hoped. Extras consist of a trailer and Dana Polan's commentary, which does a good job covering Mann and Alton's contributions and discussing the film from a film genre perspective. The only disappointment is the lack of any contribution from Ricardo Montalban; a video interview or commentary would have been much appreciated. The disc is available only as part of the Film Noir Classic Collection Volume Three, which also includes Lady in the Lake, His Kind of Woman, The Racket, On Dangerous Ground and a bonus disc featuring a documentary on film noir and five "Crime Does Not Pay" short subjects.

For more information about Border Incident, visit Warner Video. To order Border Incident, which is only available as part of the "Film Noir Collection, Vol. 3", go to TCM Shopping.

by Gary Teetzel