by Alan Rode
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If you’re a cinephile purist who believes that a necessary attribute for a film noir must be the gritty urban environment of rain-swept streets and dark alleyways, check out Border Incident (1949) and your opinion will undoubtedly change.
This surprisingly grim movie, directed by Anthony Mann and shot by master cinematographer John Alton, is as dark as it gets. Set in the Imperial Valley and Mexico, the picture pairs Mexican undercover Federale, Pablo Rodriquez (Ricardo Montalban) with his American law-enforcement counterpart, Jack Bearnes (George Murphy). This international duo is pitted against an evil Imperial Valley agri-crook, Owen Parkson (Howard Da Silva) and his gang who run an illegal alien smuggling and exploitation racket.
Few films open more brutally. The initial moments show a group of migrant workers or braceros hurriedly returning to Mexico through rugged country against a moonlit sky. These poor souls are promptly ambushed in a canyon, knifed to death and robbed, with the bodies being submerged in a bog of oozing quicksand.
With the ruthlessness of their antagonists firmly established, the two law enforcement officers begin to troll for the smuggling ring in a Mexican border town. Montalban poses as a migrant worker and partners up with an actual bracero (James Mitchell) to gain entry to the gang by paying to be smuggled across the border. The plan quickly bears fruit with Ricardo pinpointing the gang’s Mexican operation, improbably run out of a border dive by that Teutonic blusterer, Sig Rumann. While Montalban is trucked into California to Da Silva’s ranch, Murphy attempts to trail his partner while posing as a counterfeiter at large with phony U.S. border work passes as bait to set-up Da Silva for a sting operation.
Both lawmen are unaware that the bracero murderers (Arnold Moss and Alfonso Bedoya) are part of the same smuggling gang who work under Da Silva. Buying into Murphy’s counterfeiter dodge, Da Silva’s men kidnap him and take him to California in an attempt to force him to cough up the phony border passes. Montalban continues to pose as a migrant worker at the ranch and gathers evidence of the daily brutality and thievery that the bracero are subjected to by Da Silva’s ranch staff led by Jeff Amboy (Charles McGraw).
Da Silva eventually discovers Murphy’s duplicity and quickly realizes that his days as an agricultural Mafioso are numbered. Both Montalban and Murphy make a break from the ranch with Murphy being wounded and trapped. McGraw sadistically metes out a gruesome retribution to Murphy with a reaper while Montalban manages a series of hairbreadth escapes from the cutthroats while summoning the Federal cavalry from El Centro. Da Silva takes it on the lam with his crew and is first betrayed and then slain by McGraw and the others in the same ambush canyon that was the grave of many of his brutalized workers. McGraw and the gang shoot it out with the arriving cadre of lawmen and are killed.
The film concludes with an officious narrative that the smuggling and exploitation of illegal aliens from Mexico was resolved by the good work of U.S. and Mexican law enforcement. Seen in the present day, some of these narrative representations are laughable while the issues portrayed on screen are relentlessly, and unfortunately, topical.
This film may be the most uncharacteristic MGM production in the history of that storied studio. Louis B. Mayer was a firm believer in safe, “family value” films such as Lassie Comes Home and the Andy Hardy series and hated movies that used crime and violence as principal themes. But Mayer’s influence was waning- he was out of touch with post WWII audience tastes- and his days as head of MGM were numbered. Starting in 1948, Dore Schary’s star as head of production at MGM was ascendant after a string of hit musicals and prestige pictures including Battleground (1949). Familiar with Mann and Alton’s work at Eagle-Lion studios, Schary admired the craftsmanship and style by both men on films such as T-Men and Raw Deal. Schary bought Border Incident which had started production at Eagle-Lion and brought the talented duo over to MGM to make the film. Mayer and Schary continued to wrangle about film content and, after a showdown over The Asphalt Jungle in 1950, L.B. Mayer was forced out after 27 years at the MGM tiller.
Ricardo Montalban is an earnest and convincing protagonist, possibly because he actually played what he was, a Mexican, instead of the varied nationalities he was often forced into over a long and distinguished career. To say that George Murphy was cast against type in this film is an understatement. For an historical parallel, one must go back to Gene Kelly as an Oedipal murderer in Christmas Holiday (1944). An ex-hoofer, Murphy was never much of an actor, but he tries hard and at least does not detract from the film.
Bad men are preeminent in this cast (the only woman in the film was comely Teresa Celli in a brief part as James Mitchell’s wife) and seldom has such a rogue’s gallery of nefarious characters excelled in a single film. Howard da Silva’s performance was a double-edged honed sword of deceit and cowardice. His acting is so skillful and effortless that it doesn’t appear to be acting at all. Charles McGraw adds a guttural rasp of racism to his usual mixture of avarice and cruelty. He is ably assisted by henchmen Arthur Hunnicutt, Arnold Moss (a great and little known actor) and fresh from his famous “Gold Hat” turn in The Treasure of Sierra Madre, the memorable Alfonso Bedoya.
John Alton’s photography is striking, particularly the dusk-to-night exterior scenes. He really did paint with light. The writing by the team of John C. Higgins (T-Men, Raw Deal) and George Zuckerman who were brought over with Mann and Alton from Eagle-Lion was cogent and crisp. There was never any waste or drag in an Anthony Mann picture until his success during the 1950’s led to spectacles like El Cid (1961) and Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) which were not made with either efficiency or pace in mind.
Border Incident is as uncompromising and tough as movies got in 1950, and it still packs a punch.
Alan Rode is a freelance writer and film noir aficionado living in San Diego, California.
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