Noirvember Review: Border Incident
Every November fans of cinema celebrate one of the most influential genres of moviedom, the film noir. This cinematic movement from the 1940’s through the 1950’s, presented audiences with edgy pulp crime flicks with a dark and moody stylization. Film noir gives moviegoers no shortage; troubled antiheroes, seductive femme fatales, tenacious detectives, ruthless villains, urban wastelands, and violent crimes. This month I will be looking at some of the best noir movies for what has been dubbed Noirvember.
To be honest, this review was going to go to 1950’s Mystery Street, but ultimately I decided this 1949 noir was strangely topical in today’s climate and deserved to be looked at this Noirvember. Made on one of the smallest budgets MGM, could muster, Border Incident is a film noir with a Western influence which looks at an issue still being wrestled with. For those hoping for Mystery Street, fear not because you will still get your dose of a mystery solving Ricardo Montalban, and you can’t keep a good film noir down so it will inevitably pop up in our annual celebration of these great movies.
On the tumultuous border between the United States and Mexico, a mysterious band of Coyotes are murdering members of California’s community of undocumented migrant workers. Due to the cross-border nature of these crimes, Mexican Federale Pablo Rodriguez must form a partnership with American immigration agent Jack Bearnes to go undercover and discover who these murderers are. While Rodriguez takes on the guise of a migrant worker who is smuggled into Southern California; Bearnes works as a conman who has access to hundreds of ill-gotten work permits. These “permits” catch the attention of those looking to bring men across the border through methods which are less than legal. Through dangerous encounters with various thugs and gangsters in the realm of illegal human trafficking, they find themselves faced with millionaire Owen Parkson (played by famed stage actor Howard da Silva) the biggest player in the business. When Bearnes is exposed as a fed, and brutally murdered, the heat is brought down on Parkson’s operation. It all leads to a violent battle between the criminals and law enforcement agencies from two countries under the night skies of the Southern Border.
Director Anthony Mann had built a solid career making lurid B-pictures for Poverty Row. But he popped up on the radar of major studios in 1947 with the success of his movie T-Men. When a new producer at MGM found out Mann was working on this project with his T-Men screenwriter John C. Higgins, he went ahead and purchased it from the small studio which was originally slated to make it. But it was made clear the deal hinged on the inclusion of Mann in the director’s chair. Working with MGM could have been a daunting task for the filmmaker, but he proved unafraid of the challenge. While he may be working for one of the biggest studios, Mann still brought his hard-edged style from Poverty Row with him. The director fearlessly injected his film with a healthy dose of gritty lurid atmosphere and a shocking level of violence. It is made clear his take on the Southern Border was a lawless land of criminals and cutthroats. I can only imagine how Mann got this movie through the enforcers of the Hayes Code in 1949 with the brutal scenes of torture and murder as well as the controversial subject matter.
The issues with this film would not come from Anthony Mann, but from the inherent political and topical nature of Border Incident. Given that HUAC and McCarthyism was the nature of the political atmosphere, the fact that the smarmy villain of this picture was a wealthy self-made capitalist went against everything people were being told at the time. Countering that was the fact that his producer was one of Hollywood’s most outspoken liberals, leaving Mann in the middle having to appease both sides. The final hurdle Border Incident had was the fact that the film needed approval from the Immigration and Naturalization Services. The INS proved to be responsible for the strangely optimistic and straight-laced narrator who opens and closes the flick which frankly feels out of place in such a movie. Somehow he was able to find the perfect middle ground to appease all parties involved and not pull any punches.
As said before, Border Incident may have had a touch of Western, but viewers will not find the beautiful vistas of a John Ford flick here. The wide open planes of the American Southwest have never looked so claustrophobic, and all of it is blanketed under a thick layer of darkness. Those who obsess with the technical aspect of filmmaking will no doubt be amazed at the day-for-night shooting in the film’s climax which is among the best I have ever seen. This is a credit to the brilliance of cinematographer John Alton, who Anthony Mann refused to work without. Despite being on bad terms with MGM’s head of cinematography when he first arrived, this was the beginning of Alton having a long and storied career on A-pictures. In 1952, the Hungarian cinematographer was even part of a partnership which won an Oscar for their work on An American in Paris proving he did not have to be restricted to the dark world of noir.
It should come as a shock to nobody, that actor Ricardo Montalban displays plenty of screen presence and charisma in the lead role of Pablo Rodriguez. Given that his partner in the investigation is horrifically murdered by farming equipment to set off the third act of the flick, he proves perfectly capable of carrying Border Incident through it’s dark and violent end. Playing against type is George Murphy as Jack Bearnes, who shifts effortlessly from calm and cool to surly and unscrupulous while undercover. On the MGM backlot he had made a name for himself as a musical performer, appearing in pictures like: Broadway Melody of 1940 and Show Business. It is a shame in this movie that the two leads do not have more screentime together due to their separate paths while undercover, because the two men display an easy likable chemistry. In the scene where we as the viewer are introduced to them, it is discussed how they had forged a friendship beforehand due to working a case together and their rapport with each other makes that instantly believable.
Made with the lowest budget MGM could muster in 1949, Border Incident still went on to be a commercial success for the studio. Despite being made decades ago, many of the themes and subject matter of the film still hold relevance with modern audiences. This movie is a relentless piece of cinema and well worth checking out this Noirvember.