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Border Incident

There’s an old joke about a comedians’ convention. Comedians have come from around the world to gather in each others’ company, and they are such experienced veterans of the joke trade that instead of telling each other jokes, they just list them off by number. “7!” (polite applause); “122!” (respectful chuckles); and so on. Then one comic takes the mic and boldly declares “516!” and the house erupts in laughter. A journalist covering the event asked the comedian why that last one got such an outsized reaction. “Oh, they hadn’t heard that one before,” he replied.

I started obsessively watching movies because I fell in love with their magic. I fear turning into one of those jaded convention goers, content with hearing familiar numbers read aloud, and only occasionally surprised by the unfamiliar. But it happens—I’ve seen so many movies, their tricks do become routine, their contours become as familiar as old socks. I grow cynical and jaded. And then out of nowhere, when I least expect it, someone throws me a 516 and I have to boggle at the surprise.

I submit to you: Anthony Mann’s Border Incident. It is very nearly 70 years old, but it feels fresh and relevant. It is hard to classify (we’ll go with “film noir” for the lack of anything better). It is a taut B&W thriller from 1949, made on a stingy budget, and largely forgotten today. But this is one to seek out and treasure, and it is full of surprises.

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It is about illegal immigrants from Mexico, which already places this thing more or less in a class by itself. This is obviously an issue of relevance to our world today—although I can’t say today’s conversation on this topic is particularly nuanced or thoughtful.

I know I sometimes have inserted my own political beliefs into these blog posts, to the consternation of those who don’t share those opinions, but my values inform how I view the world, and consequently how I view movies, so I don’t think it inappropriate to bring politics into these discussions. That being said, I’m not here to stand on a soapbox and preach, so let me put it this way: the current conversation about illegal immigration has been overheated and emotional, without much time spent on the facts (such as: immigrants have been returning to Mexico in greater numbers than those that stay; most illegal immigrants came here on airplanes from places other than Mexico and then just overstayed their legal visas; illegal immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than the native population; significant components of the existing economy depend on immigrant labor).

But for all that, the conversation around immigration has been so intense that it can sometimes feel as if it is a new issue, something the public is turning to address only now. Which is why watching Anthony Mann’s tight Western-noir Border Incident today is so striking.

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Part of the surprise is the blunt, matter-of-fact way the film addresses the causes of this issue. The undocumented workers depicted in the film are presented with sympathy and empathy—they are acknowledged as having willfully broken laws of two countries, but this is not treated as some great moral failing. They are just ordinary people, caught up in larger forces.

Primarily, they are caught up in the force of capitalism, where the basic laws of supply and demand make illegal immigration inevitable.

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It opens with stentorian narration explaining how US farming depends on just-in-time labor at harvest time, and that this labor mostly comes from Mexico. There are systems in place to manage the flow of temporary workers from Mexico legally, but these systems are like a shaky dam in the face of a rushing river—the forces of capitalism are straining hard against those flimsy barriers. On the one side of the border are eager workers, impatient at having to wait. On the other side are the farmers, who realize that their profits can be fatter if they pay their labor less—and the easiest way to get away with paying starvation wages is if your workforce are in the country illegally and are therefore unable to ask for help.

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Thus the underground economy of human smugglers who traffic Mexican laborers to dishonest ranchers. And like any underground economy—be it drugs or bootleg liquor or what have you—the criminals who profit from the suffering of others will do many violent things to protect their interests.

The filmmakers promise the plot is based on a synthesized set of “ripped from the headlines” recent events, and adheres to the same semi-documentary style of many a film noir of the day.

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Yes, there are some cringe-worthy racial stereotypes that show up at times, but what’s more interesting are the ways this film defies the racism of its era. The hero is a Mexican cop, played by Ricardo Montalban, a real Mexican actor (something Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil failed to do, putting Charlton Heston into brownface and a phony accent).

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His opposite number is an American cop played by George Murphy, who also goes undercover—into the smuggling operation run by crime box Howard da Silva.

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I need to digress for a second to say something off-topic about Howard da Silva. In the 1970s, before Doctor Who imports became a mainstay on PBS, there was an attempt to syndicate Doctor Who on commercial television. Unlike typical US episodic television, however, Doctor Who is a serialized narrative, where events from the previous episode have direct bearing on the current one, so the syndicators brought in Howard da Silva to provide linking narration at the top of each episode to catch newcomers up. I started watching Doctor Who in the late 1970s on PBS, and occasionally they would air one of the syndicated versions with da Silva’s voice overs. I found them disorienting and strange, and I love things that are disorienting and strange, so I had the name “Howard da Silva” stuck in my head long before I had any idea who he was, or saw any of his films.

Da Silva is excellent here, as a calm, suave, charming monster who casually inspires terror in those around him, and never has to think about the human cost behind his empire.

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Also excellent is Charles McGraw as Da Silva’s right-hand enforcer. McGraw looks like Michael Madsen, and he even plays his role like Michael Madsen circa Reservoir Dogs or Kill Bill would.

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And like the films of Quentin Tarantino, there is startling violence here. I’m going to spoil one of the film’s key scenes here, so if you’d prefer not to have this SPOILER then just scroll down past the next screengrab and start reading again from there. OK, now all the spoilerphobes have gone, I can commend the scene in which George Murphy’s character is killed as an especially surprising sequence. Once the filmmakers introduced two cops, one Mexican and one Gringo, to be insinuated into undercover roles among known murderers, I just sorta figured the Mexican would be injured or captured and the American would come to his rescue. Instead, this is reversed, with Ricardo Montalban (and an undocumented Mexican worker played by James Mitchell) risk their own lives to try to rescue Murphy, only to fail and watch in horror as his body is ground to pulp by a combine! Not only is it a gruesome way to die, but adding to the horror is the incredible slowness with which director Mann lets this all play out: Murphy is shot. He struggles to crawl away, but is literally stuck in mud made from his own blood and the soil. Meanwhile the bad guys get into a combine thresher that appears to be parked like a couple of miles away, and drive it very slowly towards him, all the while Montalban is snaking across the field towards Murphy to try to get him free of the machines’ path. The agonizing pace of the scene leads the viewer to assume that Murphy will be rescued at the last minute—and then he gets sliced up. It’s sickening, and stunning, and unexpected—and sets up a key plot point that drives the rest of the climax.

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OK, welcome back those of you who have opted to preserve your virgin eyeballs for seeing this film fresh on your own (it’s on DVD from Warner Brothers to own, or rent from Netflix. I don’t know of any upcoming screenings on TCM but it’s the sort of thing that is likely to roll around eventually). This next discussion is a bit of a spoiler for you, but I’m not flagging this one because the very opening scene of the film sets up the quicksand bog, and as you know, Checkov says if you show a quicksand bog in the opening reel, in the final reel you’re gonna get your characters stuck in that quicksand.

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Yes, quicksand. I can’t tell you how much I love this. When I was a kid I was obsessed with quicksand—I was absolutely terrified of it. Some kids are afraid of lightning, or sharks, or clowns. I was scared of quicksand—which is odd, given that in the last 46 years I’ve never once encountered it ever, and I’m a fairly well-traveled person. But watching classic movies and TV convinced me this was a clear and present danger—because quicksand appears so disproportionately in classic movies and TV. And this quicksand bog is utterly glorious—it looks fantastic, it is completely terrifying, and it gets the pride of place it deserves in an action-packed finale.

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I haven’t mentioned the music—from Andre Previn. Yes, that Andre Previn. The guy won 10 Grammys, and a Lifetime Achievement Award, and something like 4 Oscars—and none of that is actually what he’s known for. And here he is, providing background music to a low-budget programmer cranked out by MGM to fill out double feature bills.

This marked the last collaboration between director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton. Since 1947 they were paired on a half dozen productions, three of which would have been inducted into the Film Noir Hall of Fame, if there was such a thing: T-Men, Raw Deal, and He Walked by Night.

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Warner markets Border Incident as a film noir, but with its mostly outdoor settings (shot and set in the Imperial Valley along the Mexican border), it has more of the feel of a Western—if it weren’t for the relentlessly tense atmosphere of impending doom, and the maneating shadows so sharp you could use them to cut tin cans and tomatoes (if you don’t get that last reference, go ask an older person).

26 Responses Border Incident
Posted By Flora : June 18, 2016 5:40 am

This movie was deliberately chosen by the studio to showcase Ricardo M. It was absolutely perfect for him.

I love this movie. I understand the relevance of the issues today and what you are saying about you seeing this movie from a political standpoint. It’s difficult if not impossible to see a political film as non-political.

Personally, I would classify this movie as film noir too.

|I know you have made references to other movies and Dr. Who etc. That’s great.

But I read this particular blog and answered it because I love THIS SPECIFIC FILM – EVERYTHIG ABOUT IT.

I cannot find a flaw with it. I love the casting, the writing, the cinematography, the music etc.

re: type-casting of ethnicity:

I have pointed out elsewhere that the reason why someone like Omar Sharif played so many ethnicities is that he spoke nine languages fluently. That is a big help to filmmakers.

I remember that Peter Lorre’s first movies in English were memorized as he did not speak the language.

This is one of my favourite films of Ricardo’s career.

Posted By Emgee : June 18, 2016 7:34 am

To say something on-topic about Howard da Silva: he knew first-hand about injustice, because of his blacklisting that barred him from movie work for a decade.

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : June 18, 2016 7:37 am

Okay, now I have to seek this out. Many thanks.

Posted By LD : June 18, 2016 9:47 am

TCM included BORDER INCIDENT in its “Summer of Darkness” festival last year and that’s when I saw it. It’s postwar documentary realism, voice over narration and Alton’s cinematography puts it in the film noir category. In some ways it reminds me of Wilder’s ACE IN THE HOLE, with another great cinematographer, Charles Lang. Both films have western locales and the use of broad daylight gives them a less than traditional film noir atmosphere. Then there is the tension.

SPOILER ALERT******* Tension filled situations are throughout the film. The two undercover agents seem to always be on the verge of discovery. And then the combine scene and its unexpected outcome, at least to me it was unexpected.

This film is certainly one of the more memorable ones I have seen.

Posted By swac44 : June 18, 2016 10:02 am

I sought this out years ago because of the Mann/Alton involvement, and was not disappointed, I had to stop the film after the combine scene because I couldn’t believe what I just saw, the scene still works incredibly well all these years later, because every single person working on it was doing it at 110%. The film is better known now because it was included in one of WB’s film noir DVD box sets, but it seemed mostly forgotten prior to that.

Along similar lines, another Mann/Alton movie that’s film noir in style if not subject matter, the French Revolution tale Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book), which has turned up on TCM from time to time. A tense thriller with a few shocking moments of violence, definitely worth seeing (or getting on MOD DVD).

Posted By LD : June 18, 2016 10:32 am

swac-I also couldn’t believe the combine scene. I remember thinking “I thought there was a code”.

Posted By swac44 : June 18, 2016 10:49 am

Maybe the producers were able to push the film as an important “issue” movie, and could get away with making it so dark. Even just through the power of suggestion, it’s a pretty grisly moment.

Posted By LD : June 18, 2016 10:59 am

Or, at the risk of sounding jaded, the censors didn’t feel like the subject was important enough to give it close scrutiny.

Posted By Emgee : June 18, 2016 11:32 am

This movie was made under the watchful eye of the Justice Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service, and was meant to show that just a few farmers made use of illegal Mexican farm workers. Those that broke the law would inevitably face justice; what may play as a criticism on the seamier sides of the force of capitalism, is in fact meant to show that the forces of justice make sure everybody gets a fair deal.

The use of an American and a Mexican policeman working side by side was an example of the Good Neighbor policy towards Mexico, and was meant to show both countries working together to combat the problem of illegal labour practices.

Posted By LD : June 18, 2016 12:10 pm

Thanks for the info Emgee.

It is my understanding that the voice over narration at the start of the film, common to film noir, helped to familiarize an audience that perhaps was not familiar with border issues or perceived them as being limited geographically to the southwest.

Posted By Blakeney : June 18, 2016 1:25 pm

Sounds gripping, look forward to seeing it. I share your fear of quicksand. As a kid I saw an old movie (don’t know which one it was) in which quicksand consumes a man, then spits out his bleached skull. It terrified me, and for years I thought that was how quicksand actually worked!

Posted By tolly devlin : June 18, 2016 2:26 pm

Saw this one many years ago at the SAIC Film Center & later taped it when it ran on TCM back in the eighties.Great film. There’s a great scene where Montalban is trying to avoid being caught that is truly suspenseful. Great work from Mann & Alton.

Posted By Jack J Mass : June 18, 2016 3:55 pm

Totally agree on Border Incident. Could have been made today. But the talent needed to do so just isn’t there. And who in heck would even go to see a B/W movie today?

Posted By kingrat : June 18, 2016 4:02 pm

Another aspect of the film is the strong romantic attachment that the bracero played by James Mitchell feels for Ricardo Montalban. Trust a talented gay actor like James Mitchell to work the gay subtext for all it’s worth. Mitchell warns Montalban not to go to Da Silva’s ranch, but when Montalban says he’s going there, Mitchell decides to go with him, obviously because he wants to be with him. The quicksand scene also is relevant to this romantic (albeit one-sided) relationship. There’s also a beautiful shot of the two men facing each other with the street of the small town behind them.

To those of us who have met so many gay Hispanic men who were married and had children, it also feels right that Mitchell’s character is married.

Posted By Kathy Shaidle : June 18, 2016 4:27 pm

Oooopsie:

“The two researchers whose work is cited over and over again for the proposition that immigrants are less criminal than Americans are Alex Piquero, [Email him] criminology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, and Bianca Bersani, [Email her]sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

“Pew cites their studies—and everyone in the media cites Pew, leading to headlines like these:

“UT Dallas prof finds immigrant kids less likely to commit serious crimes, re-offend“—The Dallas Morning News
“UMass Boston Prof: Stereotype of ‘Criminal Immigrant’ Doesn’t Hold Up“—Targeted News Service
“Surprise! Donald Trump is wrong about immigrants and crime“—The Washington Post

“Curiously, we are never shown the actual studies, but simply told—with some heat—”studies show!”

“I looked up some of these alleged studies this weekend. They’re all hidden behind ridiculous Internet paywalls. I was often only the sixth person to read them.

“It turns out that neither Piquero nor Bersani compared immigrant crime to “the overall population”—as the British Guardian recently claimed in an article purporting to prove Donald Trump wrong. Rather, they compare immigrants’ crime rate to the crime rate of America’s most criminally inclined subgroups.

“Thus, for example, once you get past the paywall, you will find that Piquero and Bersani’s joint study, “Comparing Patterns and Predictors of Immigrant Offending Among a Sample of Adjudicated Youth,” used as its base group “adolescents who were found guilty of a serious offense.”

“THAT’S NOT A REPRESENTATIVE SAMPLE OF AMERICANS! It’s a representative sample of teenagers who are convicted criminals.

“Similarly, professor Bersani’s oft-cited, but never-read study, “An Examination of First and Second Generation Immigrant Offending Trajectories,” looked at a population group that included “an over-sample of Hispanic and African-American youth.”

“Instead of immigrants who are less crime-prone than our native blacks and Hispanics, we were hoping for immigrants less criminal than our Norwegians.

“True, as Bersani explains, “because many immigrants initially settle in disadvantaged environments and are exposed to a number of crime-inducing risk factors, their experiences may be similar to many native-born minorities—particularly the African-American population.”

“But here’s an idea: How about NOT taking in immigrants who are poor, uneducated, come from dysfunctional families and settle in disadvantaged environments?

“Amazingly, Bersani’s study also produced this startling result: There is very little difference in crime rates between young native whites and blacks. Why no headlines about that? Instead of looking at “studies,” how about we just count the number of immigrants arrested, convicted and imprisoned in America?

“Even if the immigrants’ crime rate were the same as “the overall population”—and it’s not—we’re supposed to be admitting immigrants who are better than us, not “six of one, half dozen of the other.”

“Why? Because we’re picking them. If the food in your refrigerator is rotten, you don’t go out and buy more rotten food on the grounds that it’s no more rotten than the food you already have. This is the new food you’re picking and you’re paying for.

“Instead, we’re bringing in legal immigrants—forget illegals—who are way more criminal than us, notwithstanding phony studies no one bothers to read.”

Posted By Kathy Shaidle : June 18, 2016 4:29 pm

“In a 2011 report, Criminal Alien Statistics, the Government Accountability Office (known until 2004 as the General Accounting Office) studied the 249,000 illegal aliens for whom SCAAP funds were paid in 2009. It found that these aliens had been arrested a total of 1.7 million times, an average of roughly seven arrests per illegal alien inmate, and had been charged with 2.9 million separate offenses—roughly 12 offenses each.

“All told, these criminal aliens accounted for the following number of arrests for the following offenses:

Homicide: 25,064
Sex offenses: 69,929
Assault: 213,047

“GAO found that about 66 percent of the SCAAP criminal illegal aliens in state prisons were born in Mexico and another 17 percent were born in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Cuba, or Jamaica. Overall, more than 90 percent of the non-citizen inmates in federal prisons are Hispanic.

“Local jail inmates were even more heavily Mexican. Seventy percent were born in Mexico, while another 13 percent were from other Latin American countries.

“These folks are supposed to be deported when their prison terms are up. But many stay here decades after getting deportation orders because federal, state, and local law enforcement officials are unwilling or unable to expedite their removal. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) estimates that 300,000 to 450,000 criminal aliens who are eligible for removal are detained each year in federal, state, and local correctional facilities.”

Posted By Kathy Shaidle : June 18, 2016 4:32 pm

“Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute has just published a table of statistics on race and violent crime that she received from the Department of Justice. For the first time in figures of this kind, DOJ has treated Hispanics as a separate category rather than lumping them in with whites. These data cover all violent crimes except murder, but the number of murders is tiny compared to other violent crimes.

“According to these figures, Hispanics are 26 percent more likely than whites to commit violent crimes. This calculation can now be made only because DOJ has finally released data about Hispanic offenders. If the department continues to collect data on Hispanic offenders it will also be possible to determine why Hispanic incarceration rates are higher than those for whites–whether they are caused by higher offence rates or by the fact that Hispanics are a younger population with a higher percentage in high-crime age groups.”

Posted By Flora : June 18, 2016 5:12 pm

This will be my last post on this blog which up until now I have enjoyed.

This Canadian will now unfollow this particular blog aas she is unable to block racist comments from her email account.

OOPSIE!

Posted By Emgee : June 18, 2016 7:18 pm

This blog is for discussion about movies, not uploading truckloads of statistics. I’m sure there are websites for that, but this is not the place. I thought that would be pretty Obvious; it’s called Movie Morlocks, not Stack O’ Stats.

Posted By “La Otra” : June 18, 2016 7:32 pm

As always, thank you Mr. Kalat for writing an informative and nuanced appreciation for a film that has been overlooked. I will assuredly look for this film. I also look forward to reading your blog postings for your keen insight and movie scholarship . Hasta luego!

Posted By Gregg Rickman : June 18, 2016 7:39 pm

I’m sorry this excellent blog was highjacked for political purposes, but there’s no reason to check out permanently. Oopsie will go away, at least until the next time a charged issue — or perhaps just this one — happens to come up.

But my comment is on quicksand. There’s a very powerful quicksand scene where you might least expect it, smack in the middle of the Himalayas of Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (Lu Chuan, China, 2004). It’s recommended to anyone fond of quicksand’s cinematic use.

I will leave my profound thoughts on China and Tibet for some other blog where someone cares.

Posted By Doug : June 19, 2016 1:37 pm

Just became aware of: “The Gag Man: Clyde Bruckman and the Birth of Film Comedy”.
Returning to the “Border Incident” post…”Harper” starring Paul Newman is all I’m going to say.
Except…”516!”
And the crowd goes wild.

Posted By susan : June 21, 2016 4:11 pm

Count me in! Any movie that exposes injustice and the corruption and cruelty inherent in capitalism is worth a look. I added it to my list of movies to see.

Here is a funny radio podcast, from NPR, about quicksand in movies:
http://www.radiolab.org/story/quicksand/

Posted By Blakeney : June 24, 2016 11:58 pm

Susan, thanks for that podcast link – finally got around to listening to it. Fascinating! I’m suprised we don’t see an uptick in quicksand scenes in modern movies…it’s still a good metaphor for a lot of issues – societal, environmental, political, etc.

Posted By robbushblog : June 28, 2016 6:20 pm

“the corruption and cruelty inherent in capitalism”? Oh good lord… But anyway, this movie is moving up to the #1 position in my Netflix DVD queue. Mann and Alton have me there. The quicksand and combine will keep me there.

Posted By Bioskop Online : July 9, 2016 4:53 am

Saw this one many years ago at the SAIC Film Center & later taped it when it ran on TCM back in the eighties.Great film. There’s a great scene where Montalban is trying to avoid being caught that is truly suspenseful. Great work from Mann & Alton.

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