BORDER INCIDENT (1949)

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Next month marks the 70th anniversary of the gripping film noir, Anthony Mann’s BORDER INCIDENT (1949). It’s a violent, intense, shocking, and visually stunning peek into the slave labor conditions of the braceros who work farming along the American/Mexican border. Here it is 70 years later, and I cannot think of anything more topically relevant.

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Don’t let the arid, sweltering heat of the Imperial valley farmlands setting fool you into thinking this film couldn’t possibly hold up in true film noir style. It does. Thanks to the brilliant teaming of director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton, it doesn’t matter that we are hundreds of miles removed from typical urban streets like San Francisco. There’s plenty of grit and doom to be found in the Mexicali desert.

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In a similar fashion as other noirs at the time such as Mann’s T-MEN (1947) and HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948), the film begins via voice-over narration in a government sanctioned, just-the-facts-ma’am style of police procedural. Based on a true story, we are introduced to the visual spectacle of the All-American Canal farmlands, the Mexican immigrants who work it-both legally and illegally, and the violent bandits that hunt them down. The tone is sympathetic to the plight of these illegal Braceros who are robbed and killed as they attempt to return to their Mexican homeland after long period of hard labor.

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In a federal law enforcement partnership between Mexico and America, enter dreamy Ricardo Montalban as agent Pablo Rodriguez and baby-faced George Murphy as agent Jack Bearnes (and later as fictional Jack Bryant), government agents working under cover. The two work different angles of the same corrupt operation- Montalban as the bracero being smuggled like a human sardine across the border, and Murphy as the gringo offering illegal immigration paperwork.

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Things get heated from the start, especially when Pablo has palms too soft to be a field hand, and they each are nearly found out, repeatedly, and constantly tested, along the way. Jack is robbed at knife-point then tortured via a truck battery by the bandits before he meets the head of the operation, sinister ringleader Owen Parkson (Howard Da Silva) and taken into confidence. The tension intensifies as both agents attempt to close in on the key elements of this dark world, while their own lives are in imminent danger. As the film progresses, Mann doesn’t hold back in intensifying the violence. One scene in particular, involving a tractor in a field at night, is rather gruesome.

Despite the mounting tensions and violence, the overall approach is very diplomatic and equitable as it promotes collaboration, politically-speaking. And the ending feels somewhat ‘typical Hollywood ending’ as it wraps it up with tissue paper and a pretty bow.

A couple of things stand out for me. The cast, for one.

Ricardo Montalban- Pablo Rodriguez

George Murphy- Jack Bearnes

Howard Da Silva- Owen Parkson

James Mitchell- Juan Garcia

Arnold Moss- Zopilote

Alfonso Bedoya- Cuchillo

Teresa Celli- Maria

Charles McGraw- Jeff Amboy

Jose Torvay- Pocoloco (as Jose Torvay)

John Ridgely- Mr. Neley

Arthur Hunnicutt- Clayton Nordell

Sig Ruman- Hugo Wolfgang Ulrich

Otto Waldis- Fritz

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Ricardo Montalban, born November 25th, 1920 in Mexico City, Mexico, was a dynamically handsome, force of nature. Ricardo made 13 Spanish-language films in Mexico before his debut American film, FIESTA (1947). He was a true working actor, with a variety of roles… romantic latin lovers in musicals, noir detectives (i.e. MYSTERY STREET, 1950), TV westerns, his powerful “Khan” roles in Star Trek, Mr. Roarke on TV’s “Fantasy Island,” and so much more. In 1970, he founded “Nosotros,” a non-profit whose mission is to help those of Spanish-speaking origin in the motion picture and television industry. With over 170 roles across seven decades in film and television, Montalban worked til the very end in 2009 at the age of 88. He will always remain in the hearts of many as the embodiment of the hardworking, virile movie star. For all of his performances in a storied career, this one stands out for me.

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When I think of Howard Da Silva, it’s easy to recognize that face in dozens of roles on stage, TV, and film. But it’s hard pressed not to recall him for his blacklisting in the early 1950s which curbed what could have been even more illustrious career. After being named by writer Martin Berkley, the HUAC (House on UnAmerican Activities Committee) called on actor Robert Taylor as a “friendly witness”, he pointed fingers at many of his fellow colleagues. Taylor said, “I can name a few who seem to sort of disrupt things once in a while. Whether or not they are communists I don’t know. One chap we have currently, I think is Howard da Silva. He always seems to have something to say at the wrong time.” Appearing in front of the HUAC, Da Silva refused to respond or name names, being the first in Hollywood to invoke the 5th amendment, and subsequently was blacklisted until the early 1960s when it was lifted.

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Although heavy ladened in Mexican stereotypes that were especially commonplace at the time, the performances by Alfonso Bedoya and Arnold Moss are truly memorable, as they steal every scene. Bedoya was born in Mexico City and worked small roles in nearly  60 films in the Mexican film industry before John Huston offered him his breakthrough role in THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE (1947). To this day, his line of “stinkin’ badges” has since grown into a pop culture life of its own, including a parody moment in Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES. Bedoya has a very amiable and appealing quality that transcends the screen, even when he portrays despicable bandits as in this film. You find yourself conflicted in secretly hoping his character somehow turns a new leaf of an upstanding citizen, even as he cackles when committing mischief and crimes. In the midst of a long film career, he struggled with alcoholism and died at the age of 53, in 1957.

Brooklyn-born Arnold Moss possesses a distinctively smooth, bass voice that draws you in. Unlike Bedoya, Moss was trained on the Shakespearian stage and BORDER INCIDENT was only his 4th film role. Moss portrayed a variety of character roles, often as Arab sheiks, with a majority of his career spent working in television. He earned a PhD from NYU in 1973, at the age of 63. In 1989, he died at age 79 of lung cancer. The pairing of Bedoya and Moss as partners in crime here is wholly satisfying.

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I realize I should say something regarding George Murphy, as he was essentially the co-lead (along with Montalban) in this film, but I find him to be mostly stiff, and he feels out of place the entire film. Don’t worry, that doesn’t spoil a thing. The only performances of his that I find captivating and genuine, are when he’s being tortured or harmed. No, I’m not a masochist. But those scenes are more dramatically plot-driven; and like witnessing a horrific car accident, one cannot help themselves but to peek in horror, no matter who’s in the wreckage.

There’s no doubt that an enormous reason for loving this film can be credited to 3 men: director Anthony Mann, cinematographer John Alton, and screenwriter John C Higgins. If ever there was a perfect threesome in creating film noir, this is it. Mann, Alton, and Higgins were formidable in their contributions to some of the era’s best film noirs such as T-MEN (1947), RAW DEAL (1948), and HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948). While these films were made at the poverty-row studio at Eagle-Lion Films, Mann got the chance to move up to the big leagues at MGM. Thanks to a story by George Zuckerman and Higgins, it was intended to be a ‘T-Men on the border” to replicate its success, but this time with LB Mayer’s fatter wallet. Mann’s only condition was that John Alton come along, too.

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Mann’s vision brought the brutality, Alton painted the beautiful imagery, and Higgins wrote the screenplay to make it all sing in harmony. One of the most telling lines in BORDER INCIDENT comes from favorite tough guy Charles McGraw who portrays Jeff Amboy, one of the corrupt henchmen along the trail of terror. It’s a wide-eyed revelation when bracero Juan asks why they would only get paid $.25 cents per hour, and not the $.75 cents they were told in Mexico. Amboy explodes, “Listen monkey, ya come in here like a crook, break our laws, expect to be treated like one of us?!” It’s more than a tad hypocritical, when it is they (Amboy and the fellow criminals) who are actually committing the much more serious crimes, both legally and certainly morally, as they take full advantage of these braceros in the most menacing ways.

For its time, this film’s stance on the issue of illegal passage of immigrants from Mexico to work American farms is taken somewhat neutrally with blame and credit laid out on both sides of the border. I find this topic especially relevant considering today’s headlines that reflect real dangers for asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants that seek nothing more than an opportunity to work hard to support and protect their families. In contrast to BORDER INCIDENT, we don’t see a cooperative effort today between our two governments with a goal of protecting such targeted people.

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Ironically, in modern politics, many agree that it is our own government’s policies which are placing undocumented immigrants in serious risk and harm. For a brief history lesson, the United States signed the Mexican Labor Agreement with Mexico on August 4, 1942, which was a wartime initiative to utilize braceros (Mexican laborers allowed into the U.S. for seasonal agricultural work) to meet the demands of produce farming. The problem is, the program ended in 1947, just as American politics took a turn to red scare paranoia. As a result, we still have a growing demand for these laborers but our current laws, plus the mountainous backlog of legal channels, are no longer in step with these demands, thereby forcing many to seek illegal routes. Sadly, more than 70 years later, our modern world hasn’t solved the immigration challenge as swiftly and cooperatively as BORDER INCIDENT. If only Ricardo Montalban were here to save us.

*This article was my pleasure and my contribution to HOLLYWOOD’S HISPANIC HERITAGE BLOGATHON, hosted by my dear friend Aurora of Once Upon A Screen aka @CitizenScreen, taking place September 29th, 2019. Be sure to read all the participating entries, honoring the many Hollywood talents of hispanic heritage.

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Comments

  1. This is one of my all time favourite noirs. It is nearly perfect, from the casting to the cinematography to the direction. It is also a very progressive film. I love that the braceros are portrayed as flesh and blood human beings, men who simply want to make a living for their families, and not as stereotypes.

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  2. Heartbreaking and gutwrenching, it is likely that there will never be a time when Border Incident will not be relevant.

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  3. Just making the rounds of the posts. This is an absolutely fantastic write-up on this memorable film. I relived it as I read your comments. I can’t tell you how happy I am that I railroaded you into participating in this event. 🙂

    Aurora

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  4. Christian Sanchez says:

    I haven’t seen this film and I’m really excited to watch it. You’re right, the topic is very relevant. That said, I haven’t heard much about it in the democratic speeches and Trump has been fairly silent on the subject. Regardless, thanks for sharing!

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Trackbacks

  1. […] The first submission received for this event is a great one from Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled. Here Kellee takes a look at a 70-year-old still relevant movie that casts “blame and credit…on both sides of the border.” Here is her look at Anthony Mann’s Border Incident (1949). […]

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