Anthony Mann, 1949
Starring: Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Howard Da Silva, James Mitchell
Pablo Rodriguez, a Mexican agent, and Jack Bearnes, a U.S. officer, team up and go undercover to see if they can locate a ring of gangsters who are illegally transporting migrant workers from Mexico into California. These men are ruthlessly used as slave labor and mistreated at every turn, sometimes even killed. As Rodriguez and Bearnes get closer to the truth and hone in on a local businessman, things get infinitely more dangerous for the pair.
In many ways, Border Incident is a follow up to the previous noir efforts of director Anthony Mann, T-Men and He Walked By Night. All three are based on real events – actual crimes that occurred in the ‘40s – and are centered on different government agencies or police departments. The main characters are all law enforcement officers: Treasury agents in T-Men, police officers in He Walked By Night, and border patrol agents in Border Incident. Here, the barrier between Mexico and the U.S. is far more than just a geographical one and it is implied that unless the two governments work past language barriers, cultural differences, and racism, then this area will utterly sink into a bleak realm of exploitation and violence.
This nihilistic atmosphere is the antithesis of many classic western films and the mythic quality of the American western is utterly absent. There are plenty of daytime shots of desert, intense heat, human toil, and backbreaking labor, but most of the film is shot at night with John Alton’s incredible noir-flavored cinematography. Set in the Imperial Valley and Mexico, this bears more in common with Ride the Pink Horse, another Mexican-themed film noir, than it does with the westerns of John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Aldrich, or even Anthony Mann himself; he went on to a career as a successful western director, often accompanied by star James Stewart.
Like Ride the Pink Horse and Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker, this is a rare film noir that steps away from white American society and includes Mexican culture, even featuring a few Mexican actors. Though all of these films step away from high-speed urban life, the quiet desert atmosphere is transformed into a hellish wasteland, an underworld where men in search of freedom are destined to meet their doom. That is perhaps Mann and cinematographer John Alton’s biggest accomplishment with Border Incident. The innocuous title doesn’t betray the film’s desperation and hopelessness. Though some gruesome violence occurs in T-Men and He Walked By Night, nothing compares to scenes of men thrashing around as they asphyxiate to death in muddy quicksand, or the death of one agent, who is wounded, partially buried in the ground, and then slowly run over with a tractor.
Script by John C. Higgins, who also wrote He Walked By Night, Mann’s undercover Federale, Pablo Rodriguez, is one of his most memorable film noir characters. Excellently played by a then up-and-coming Ricardo Montalban (Wrath of Khan), it’s refreshing to see Montalban actually cast as a Mexican for once, rather than a character of nebulous European ancestry. It’s also refreshing to finally see a Mexican person cast in a Mexican role – Hollywood in the ‘20s and ‘30s was particularly guilty of casting white Americans and Europeans in every role, regardless of whether it made sense. Border Incident largely shies away from inherent racism, presents its villains – the excellent Howard da Silva and Charles McGraw – as inherently racist. Like capitalist greed, manipulation, backstabbing, and underhanded violence, it is presented as another vile aspect of their personalities.
Perhaps distastefully to modern audiences, the film concludes with a voice over praising the collaboration of the U.S. and Mexican governments for clearing up the numerous border incidents. It claims they were able to achieve this sheerly through collaboration alone. This, obviously, is laughable in regards to the history of the past 50+ years, but it’s a jarring note that is easily ignored and, thankfully, it’s the film’s only glaring flaw. Available on DVD, Border Patrol comes highly recommended. Those of you who find film noir too predictable or western not up your alley should definitely give Border Patrol a chance. This is also a must-see for anyone interested in painting or cinematography, as Alton’s work is – as always – incredibly beautiful.
I just wanted everyone to know how difficult it was for me to write this review without making any “Khan” references.