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BORDER INCIDENT

(1949)

Starring Ricardo Montalban, Howard da Silva, George Murphy; dir; Anthony Mann


An extremely tough, powerful thriller, Border Incident is also an interesting milepost in the careers of its makers. Director Anthony Mann came of age in the late 1940s with a series of grimly violent, embattled urban crime thrillers, the best of which – Raw Deal and T-Men – cemented a timeless filmmaking partnership with cinematographer John Alton, who also shot this film. When MGM bought Border Incident mid-production, Alton followed Mann across to finish it and then stayed with the studio, going on to become Vincente Minnelli’s Director of Photography for whom he won an Oscar in 1951 with An American In Paris. Border Incident was also Mann’s last film noir before the series of Westerns he made for MGM, mostly starring Jimmy Stewart.

Interestingly, the opening action scenes and Border Incident’s climactic sequence are pure Western (and bring the narrative full circle as they use the same dramatic location – the Valley of the Vultures) – with hapless individuals, dwarfed by an imposing, ancient landscape, being led into a life or death confrontation of elemental purity – good and evil, knuckles and brawn, shotguns and cunning. These framing scenes’ particular qualities are clearly delineated by the ensuing shifts of setting and action: from hand to hand, Western-style in the Valley of the Vultures, to a more coordinated, cogs-in-a-complex-machine (multi-national law enforcement) arrangement in the film's central contemporary thriller-style scenes, where modern industrial society forms the backdrop.

Yet far from a typical Western’s sense of freedom, Border Incident shares with T-Men that film’s inky, submerged visual quality. These are ‘wide’ but not ‘open’ spaces, as Alton’s beautifully registered grey-toned but grim visuals make the distant horizons as closed as the American border. The constant presence of vulnerable, innocent peasants adds a piquancy to Border Incident, raising the stakes from the destiny of a mere two police agents to that of an entire underclass.

The linkage to T-Men is further reinforced by some characteristic Mann/Alton camera set-ups (an over-the-shoulder, day-for-night shot looking down over a broad empty space in Border Incident is echoed in T-Men; Mrs Amboy foregrounded in half profile late in Border Incident recalls similar framing of Claire Trevor in Raw Deal). As in T-Men, likewise topped and tailed by a Federal Government, 1950s-style voice-of-authority narration (evidently shot on the same boardroom set!), long stretches of Border Incident take place indoors in incongruously luxurious settings; in T-Men these were used to portray gangland as a corporate battlefield. But Border Incident is no Tijuana T-Men. Its central scenes around the lavish ranch house conform more to standard Hollywood visions of ‘Mexico – land of extremes’ than any likely reality; certainly they are consistent with no indigenous Mexican filmmaking I’ve ever seen.

(However documentary value does come through in Border Incident in unintended ways; through how little has changed [economic disparity fueling the desperation of minimum-wage workers] - and how much [unguarded chicken-wire fencing representing the 1940s U.S.-Mexico border]; by 1980’s The Border, starring Jack Nicholson, this barrier had morphed tragically into awesome concrete emplacements more reminiscent of France’s Maginot Line – and just as militaristic.)

According to Alberto Dominguez’s 2000 documentary on Latin Americans’ portrayal by Hollywood, The Bronze Screen, the production of Border Incident expressed ‘subversive’ leanings by adopting a non-racist, even-handed approach to its portrayal of the two nationalities. This reflected the status of much of its crew being, so the story goes, victims of the McCarthyist black list. Yet there is an evident symbolic distinction in Border Incident between day (good/white) and night (illicit/Mex), a dualism reinforced by the prominence of New World (American) technology contrasted with the stone-age primitivism of the Old World. We see the U.S. police fleet, guided by radio, roar out in formation in bright sunshine, while south of the border swarthy peasants huddle clandestinely at night exchanging secret codes via their lapel buttons; Mexican cops arrive (ineffectually) in the dead of night in the back of a truck, etc. Driving this home, there’s no shortage of eyeball-popping ‘stupido’ Mexican caricatures among the villains. Reconciling these conflicting views of the allied nationalities is the camera. Its tendency to adopt a subjective point of view has the audience looking down ‘over’ the peasants – the Uncle Sam paternalistic viewpoint towards the needy which fit the liberalism of the time just as snugly as its anti-McCarthyism.

It all makes an interesting comparison with Touch of Evil (1958): the action in both similarly hovering around the border ‘aperture’, that porous, fluid, grey area where identities blur, inhibitions (if you’re white) melt away in tantalizing marketplaces of forbidden sin, while unattainable opportunities for prosperity (if you’re Latino) seem just a step away. While Border Incident, particularly through its framing Federal government propaganda messages, ostensibly toes the line of postwar conservative prosperity, Touch of Evil, through its overt cynicism revisits these contrasts with a polar opposite agenda, underlining perhaps how much attitudes had changed in the intervening decade. There’s even a mimicking structure of bilateral ‘cooperation’ that falls short, suggesting neither era believed in Pax Americana  (Welles’ American police honcho futilely sets up elite Mexican crimefighter Heston for a fall, while Montalban’s Mexican Fed watches inertly as George Murphy’s G-Man goes down quite savagely.)

This latter event, a scene of immense violence – physical and psychological – is the most memorable thing about Border Incident and seers its image into viewers’ memories for decades. In his noir films Mann repeatedly staged scenes of barbaric cruelty (thankfully shot in somewhat oblique fashion), most notably Raw Deal’s flaming liquid to the face and T-Men’s suffocating steamroom murder. But numerous postwar ‘B’ films noir (Max Nosseck’s Dillinger [1945] with Lawrence Tierney's broken glass to the face; Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat [1953] in which Lee Marvin’s boiling coffee scarred Gloria Grahame’s face for life; Joseph H.Lewis’s The Big Combo [1955] where a hearing aid became an aural drill) took sadism in ‘imaginative’ new directions. What’s striking about the grouping of such scenes is their quotidian quality (echoing their precursor, Cagney’s assault-by-grapefruit in 1931’s Public Enemy). This ability to transform mundane objects into cruel torture devices suggests profound unease with everyday life; the timing of these scenes’ emergence and disappearance suggests the possible after-effects of wartime desensitization.

Honorable mention must go to the highly effective music in Border Incident by André Previn and the villainous turn of Howard da Silva, who is very believable as the ruthlessly exploitative ranch owner. Also excellent is the adaptable Ricardo Montalban – ‘dashing’ is not too strong a description for the young star (seen to equally sharp effect as a detective in the Detour-like Mystery Street [1950 – also shot by Alton]), who, like Dick Powell, transformed himself from a smooth dancer to an urban tough guy – notwithstanding his soft hands! *

( * a minor plot point early in Border Incident, these give him away as a non-labourer)