BORDER INCIDENT (1949)

Screen Shot 2019-09-25 at 2.50.05 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2019-09-23 at 1.13.13 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2019-09-23 at 1.12.18 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2019-09-23 at 2.57.45 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2019-09-23 at 3.00.29 PM

Screen Shot 2019-09-23 at 3.21.45 PM

Screen Shot 2019-09-23 at 3.23.18 PM

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

Screen Shot 2019-09-25 at 2.49.18 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2019-09-23 at 3.34.53 PM

Screen Shot 2019-09-23 at 3.51.42 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2019-09-23 at 3.55.06 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2019-09-23 at 3.54.34 PM

Screen Shot 2019-09-23 at 4.02.59 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2019-09-23 at 3.32.21 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2019-09-23 at 3.50.28 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2019-09-25 at 2.13.23 AM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VOLVER (2006)

Volver_poster

Pedro Almodovar’s VOLVER (2006) is a vibrantly colorful film that explodes on the screen with a wealth of flavor. The variety of spices this cinematic dish delivers include a nicely paced story with a rich balance of plot and sub-plots, a sublimely acted cast, a heavy dose of themes, and dash of a heart-soaring musical score. The themes are served in plentiful. Love, forgiveness, death, family, superstition, culture, tradition, survival… just barely scratches the surface. The diverse and rich emotional range of this film is what really completes it.

Being a film that includes a few surprises, one not dare to spoil it by giving away too much. Instead, let’s whet the appetite with a taste of the beginning of this story. Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and her teen daughter Paula go to visit Raimunda’s mother’s grave. Many older women of the town are dutifully cleaning up their loved ones’ grave sights as strong winds prevail. Along with her sister Sole, Raimunda and her daughter visit their aunt Paula who is showing signs of physical fraility and dementia.

Despite her obvious limitations, there are signs that she is being well cared for. They assume it must be aunt Paula’s next-door neighbor Agustina who is experiencing health concerns of her own. They visit with Augustina, as she puffs on marijuana to improve her appetite, who says she looks in on Paula. She asks them if they’ve seen their mother Irene at Paula’s house. She mentions that the local villagers have claimed to have seen their mother’s ghost. They scoff at her question and attribute it to the town’s reputation for insanity due to the constant strong winds.

Irene

Irene

Back at their place in Madrid, Raimunda and her daughter face much bigger challenges. After coming home from a long day at work, Raimunda discovers the aftermath of a gruesome scene that has left Riamunda’s husband Paco dead. Young Paula acted in self defense when she killed Paco but is left with the grim horror of what just occured and the haunting mystery of what Paco meant when he said he wasn’t her real father anyway.

Film Title: Volver

Raimunda protectively embraces her daughter Paula

Volver in spanish roughly translates “to return” or to “come back.” This film’s purpose is assuredly just that.  The main drivers of this story are strong yet realistically flawed female characters who look to solve their problems by dealing with family secrets and returning home to their familial roots.

CAST:

Penelope Cruz- Raimunda

Carmen Maura- Irene

Lola Duenas- Sole

Blanca Portillo- Agustina

Yohana Cobo- Paula

Chus Lampreave- Tia Paula (aunt Paula)

Antonio de la Torre- Paco

Carlos Blanco- Emilio

Maria Isabel Diaz- Regina

Neus Sanz- Ines

volver_family

Paula, Sole, Irene and Raimunda

Penelope Cruz magnetically lights up the screen as Raimunda. We see all facets of her. Her physical presence is stunningly attractive, determined and sexy, not unlike a young Sofia Loren. Her performance draws you in with a full range of emotions as this part demands. She is believable as the protective mother, the quibbling yet bonding sister, and complex daughter. It’s not surprising that Cruz was nominated for this role for Best Actress that year by the Academy, along with many other awards. (See the imbd list here) She represents the very first Spanish-born actress to earn an Oscar nomination.

The cast is strong across the board with a predominately female focus. Even the small parts are completely charming. Very few lines are spoken by men and most of the plot lines that involve men are delivered through the perspective of the female characters. What a refreshing change.

THEMES:

One theme that pervades or rather haunts this film are the underlying secrets. How the characters choose to create, keep, bury or share these secrets is a constant underlying stream that flows throughout the entire film. It’s interesting to see how these secrets control their lives and often dictate their destinies. These secrets are quite dark and remain in the family to repeat history. This also ties into the additional theme of family.

Volver_PaulakissesRaimunda

it’s the challenges that bond for mother & daughter

A clear theme is undoubtedly the relationships between the female characters. The dynamics of female bonding feels authentic, not forced or fake, and is frequently the source of very humourous moments. In particular, the mother-and-daughter complex relationship between Irene and her daughter Raimunda and again between Raimunda and her daughter Paula are deeply heart-warming, sweet and complicated- just like real mothers and daughters. Overall, this is a story of family, dysfunction, joys and all.

volver-ireneMomhug

forgiveness blossoms in truth

Death and the after-life are also themes that make an appearance. Many cultures as witnessed here (and in my own Irish culture) embrace death more than fearing death as a common topic to address head-on in songs, poetry and film so this is no exception. There are also theme notes of culture and superstition. From quirky mannerisms to references of food and music, there are bite-sized sharings of this spanish culture that is pure delight. The superstitious hints add to the many flavors of this film.

MUSIC:

The score is wonderful and appropriately fitting. There is a stand-out moment where Raimunda sings a beautiful song that her mother taught her as a child. It’s not Cruz’s real voice but a beautiful scene, nonetheless.

volver_song

 

I loved the vibrancy of this film and all its characters. The layers of sisterhood is a far cry from the stereotypical sugary chick-flick, nor is this a shallow soap-operatic Lifetime production. I related to the matriarchal family structure as my own family is very similar. I’m close to my sister and daughters, as are the women in my family. We jokingly call my father’s closely-knit six sisters who seem to take on a community appoach to raising many of my cousins as ‘the coven.’ The women in VOLVER (2006) feel real and we root for them, even as they make mistakes. And while they are victimized, they are hardly victims.

This post is my contribution to the Hispanic Heritage Blaogathon hosted by Aurora of ONCE UPON A SCREEN and Kay of MOVIE STAR MAKEOVER taking place October 11-12. Check out both of their fabulous blogs for the complete list of participants. 

Hispanic Heritage Blogathon

Hispanic Heritage Blogathon

%d bloggers like this: