Border Incident (1949)

Border Incident (1949), starring Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy and Howard Da Silva is a film noir set in the wild border lands between Mexico and California.

Director Anthony Mann is maybe better known for the gritty westerns he made with James Stewart in the 1950s.

However he also directed some memorable film noir favourites such as T-Men (1947), He Walked By Night (1948) and Raw Deal (1948).

Curiously, Border Incident lacks any femme fatale, or indeed any female character at all, and is an unusally violent film for its day.

Border Incident winds its way on to film noir lists, therefore, primarily because of the photography, which teems with interesting closeups, wide-angle lenses, low-angle shots, tons of shadows and light, and a lot of darkness, from which scared and tense faces emerge.

We'll dig deeper into whether this is an actual film noir or not, later. 

But first it's the politics.

The background to Border Incident is political, as the Mexico / USA border usually is, and concerns the results of The Bracero Program of 1942.

Under a pact between the US and Mexico, laborers were promised decent living conditions in labor camps, such as adequate shelter, food and sanitation, as well as a minimum wage pay of 30 cents an hour.

The agreement between the two countries also stated that braceros, the manual workers in question from Mexico, would not be subject to discrimination such as exclusion from "white" areas.
George Murphy calling in Border Incident (1949)

This program was intended to fill the labor shortage in agriculture. In Texas, the program was banned for several years during the mid 1940s due to the discrimination and maltreatment of Mexicans.

Yet, the program lasted 22 years and offered employment contracts to 5 million braceros in 24 U.S. states, and was and remains the largest foreign worker program in U.S. history.

The movie opens with the earnest tones of a voiceover describing conditions on the border. It's the same sem-docuemntary feel as Anthony Mann established in T-Men (1947).

As well as an aerial view of the border canal, we hear about the vast army of farm workers from Mexico which descends yearly on California, and this same voiceover argues that these farm workers are supplying all the fun and prosperity that the Californians and other Americans are enjoying so much.
Howard da Silva

Most of the workers, known as braceros, obtain work permits and don’t have to jump the fence ― like the illegals.

And for those that do jump the fence, there is an additonal problem: bandits even ‘infest’ both sides of the border to rob illegal immigrants, and so we begin a tale promising to detail injustice “about which you should know”, announces the narrator.

The film opens with these self-same bandits at work, stabbing and robbing some hapless illegals. It is ‘injustice’ that’s true ― like all criminal violence.

Cuddle Close for Safety ... in Border Incident (1949)
Another question may be ― is Border Incident, even a film noir? A great deal of what is correctly branded ‘police procedural’ is incorrectly branded film noir.

And Border Incident is, even with its film noir style photography, just a border-based variant of the same, with Mexican police officials added.
Ricardo Montalban in BORDER INCIDENT (1949) - FBI!

The plan is laid out, very much in the manner of the procedural ― Ricardo Montalban is going undercover as a bracero. His disguise is not that strong, and amounts to a battered old hat.

Ricardo Montalban in BORDER INCIDENT (1949) - in disguise!
Further, it’s not clear what crime he’s investigating ― whether it is the people smuggling racket, or whether it is the fact that illegals are being murdered. Likely both.

There is a scene of torture, which does up the rating as far as Border Incident’s film noir chops, and as noted, this is generally quite a violent film. The Mexican villains remain however, the stuff of comedy, not the stuff of crime.
¡Ay, caramba! No stereotypes here then

At one point a couple of these Mexicans come across a recording device which they respond to in an idiotic fashion, as if they have never seen anything like it ... as if in fact they had never even heard if or seen an example of cinema.

Howard da Silva as ring leader Parkson in Border Incident (1949)

Parkson, the ring leader of all the baddies, is played by Howard Da Silva. His faintly jovial performance is rather constantly pleasant ― for a crime lord. He almost turns nasty near the conclusion, but remains pretty avuncular and kindly, in a strange way.

Dark themes, filmed in the large part at night, and a man in possibly out his depth. It is still barely film noir. Gone is the paranoia, gone is the weakened male lead, and gone are the strong, striking, mysterious and powerful or dangerous women.

There’s a good deal of pretty powerful violence in Border Incident, but there is no mystery. We know who everybody is, so it’s just a standard undercover cop kinda tale.

The dialogue might well be noir however, with lines such as:

“All right you tootin’ maverick ― get going!”

“I don’t want to tip my mitts yet ― but In think it might be a good idea to have a routine check run by some of the local boys.”

“The police and the snakes are first cousins.”

“You’re never slow sticking my neck out.”

Fans of diversity will watch askance at the identity politics displayed in the characterisation of the Mexicans, which is on par with that in Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Another ringleader is also inexplicably German, but this may be an item of casting based in fact, as this is all supposed to be based on true happenings.

Add to this the fact that there are no women at all of any note whatsoever in the cast ― and you've some heady fare. It might have been worse to try and shoehorn a female role into a world which is all about male cops, male migrants, and male smugglers.

The Mexicans on two occasions suspect both Montalban and Murphy of being with the police― and they are right both times! ― but the cops talk their way out of it, and the Mexicans continue to come across as fairly dumb.

After an unpleasant murder under the muddy plough of a massive tractor, the final minutes of the film are a short manhunt and an interesting twist awaiting Howard da Silva's character.

To climax, there is a shoot-out followed by the worst of all Hollywood action staples ― quicksand!

It's a strange trope quicksand, and it served many a set-piece from Tarzan movies, all way through to The Neverending Story (1984).

To find the origin of this strange narrative device, I would look no further than the precursor to much crime drama and similar thrills ― Sherlock Holmes ― and the famous Grimpen Mire which occupies several of the set pieces in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

One of the best discussions of the vital role of quicksand in movie dramas can be found here at Slate.

“Murder, robbery and rescue ― all these things that are true and part of the record!” announces the voice over narrator. As if these graces might save the picture and allow audiences to leave feeling satisfied ― as opposed to cheated.

The USA, Mexico ... and God Almighty!

Meanwhile, “the food is brought from the earth by the hands of the workers, now safe and secure, living under the protection of two great Republics ― and the bounty of God Almighty!”

Wikipedia says that Border Incident is a Film Noir

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