Posted by David Kalat on June 18, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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