*. Dana Polan begins his DVD commentary on Border Incident by mentioning how it’s less a film noir (as it’s usually packaged) than it is a police procedural or what he calls a “government agency film.” I think he’s right, and I’d also call it an issue movie, one that addresses a timely political matter.
*. Here the issue being dealt with is illegal immigration, a subject introduced by opening voiceover (typical, Polan tells us, of the government agency film). It’s certainly a timely enough political issue today, and Border Incident could probably be compared in interesting ways to Sicario. Even more timely, however, are the pictures of the All-American canal, the largest irrigation canal in the world, diverting water from the Colorado River to California’s Imperial Valley, turning the desert into a paradise. It’s not a point the film raises, but today I think we see all this and wonder how sustainable it is. As big an issue as illegal immigration continues to be, California running out of water may be bigger.
*. Whatever the issue being explored, Border Incident feels very contemporary. The reason, I’m almost sad to say, is its abrupt and brutal violence. Polan remarks on how life is cheap in many of director Anthony Mann’s movies, but it seems especially so here. People are just commodities, not so different from cabbages. Actually killing people isn’t as hard a job as disposing of the bodies after. Having a farm or a handy pit of quicksand is helpful.
*. Speaking of which: quicksand in a desert canyon? I’m not sure that’s even possible. Also, according to experts, drowning in quicksand is very unlikely anyway. In a movie that otherwise scores a lot of points for its brutal realism the quicksand pit is a false note.
*. On the subject of brutality, how is George Murphy being tortured in the truck scene? It seems to be pulling on him in some way but it’s not clear to me what is being done. Looks painful though, and the image of him being caught in the headlights nicely foreshadows his final moments.
*. It’s beautifully photographed, as usual, by frequent Mann collaborator John Alton, but there’s more to it visually than just the painting in light. The scene where Ricardo Montalban visits Murphy, who is imprisoned in a tower, is perfectly handled in terms of making use of that space in a way that allows us to understand what is going on and thus experience Montalban’s predicament and how athletically he gets out of it. That’s not at all as easy a thing as it seems. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker we wouldn’t have as clear a sense of what is going on and where the characters are in relation to one another.
*. Remarkably, it’s a movie where the violence still has the power to shock. This is felt in various places throughout the film, but most powerfully at the end with the murder of Murphy’s character. Yes, the all-American boy becomes mulch under the blades of the disc while his Mexican counterpart is the hero. What makes this even more surprising is the way they play with the idea that Montalban is going to be able to rescue him at the last minute. I think this is what everyone in the audience would have been expecting (it’s what I was expecting!) and to have that hope snuffed out in such a horrific way is very contemporary. There are few scenes I can think of so bleak in other movies of the time.
*. Polan praises the sound design in the water tower sequence where there’s no music but only the soft sound of the pump in the background. I think we could say the same about Murphy’s death, where again there is no music and all we hear is the clanking noise of the tractor’s caterpillar treads (like those of a tank). Added to this is the fact that Murphy makes no sound, no call for help, no scream, no muttering to himself. He is without speech in extremis.
*. For all its violence, the political issue of the braceros is actually kind of quaint. No one is smuggling drugs, and the braceros aren’t gangsters themselves or women being forced into prostitution. They’re just farm labour. The only real problem here is that they’re being murdered by the smugglers after they get paid.
*. Another surprising element is that, for a police procedural, the police really aren’t that effective. The bad guys are ahead of them every step of the way, and are ultimately only foiled because they fall out among themselves (for reasons I wasn’t clear on). On the plus side, at least our boys aren’t undone by a femme fatale. They aren’t falling for any floozies. But even here, among the few female characters we do see the gang seem to be miles ahead of the cops. The woman at the staging place for the braceros identifies Montalban immediately by his soft hands, while Amboy’s wife easily gets the drop on him while he’s on the phone. So despite not being sexual snares the ladies are still playing a game that’s more advanced than the men.
*. This is a good little movie, suspenseful and very professionally turned out. It’s bleakness and “uncompromisingly violent” (Leonard Maltin) story help it stand out from other titles of the time that were almost as dark. Just ignore the closing narration and its invocation of the happy valley and “the bounty of God Almighty.” This is a movie about the valley of the shadow of death.