Sunday, September 22, 2019

Border Incident (1949)

(This post is part of the Hispanic Heritage Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen)

 In the mid to late Forties Anthony Mann established himself as one of the foremost directors of what would later become known as film noir with such films as T-Men (1947), Railroaded! (1947), Desperate (1947), and Raw Deal (1949). Among his most remarkable film noirs was Border Incident (1949). In many respects Border Incident would be a revolutionary movie. Not only was it the first non-musical that Ricardo Montalbán made in Hollywood, but it featured his first leading role. It was among the earliest films in a relatively new genre, that of the police procedural, released only a year after such pioneering procedurals as The Naked City (1948) and He Walked by Night (1948). What is more, Border Incident (1949) presented a sympathetic view of Mexicans as human beings at a time when Hollywood was still filled with Latinx stereotypes.

To a degree Border Incident (1949) was "ripped from the headlines," much like episodes of the TV show Law & Order later would be. On August 4 1942 the United States signed the Mexican Farm Labour Agreement with Mexico, beginning what was known as the "bracero program (a bracero being a worker from Mexico allowed in the United States for a time for seasonal work in agriculture)." Unfortunately, the bracero program was open to abuse. Even though the Mexican government insisted on a minimum wage, good living conditions, decent food, and access to medical care, braceros sometimes found themselves provided with substandard living conditions, no access to medical care, and wages lower than the minimum (that is, if they weren't cheated out of their wages entirely). Because only a limited number of braceros would be permitted to enter the United States, workers sometimes bribed officials to be chosen to work there. Also because only a limited number of guest workers were allowed, some years there would be actually be an increase in undocumented workers. Because braceros could only be used in areas where there was a shortage of domestic farm workers, employers sometimes misrepresented the availability of local workers in order to use guest workers. It was due to the treatment of braceros and the widespread corruption in the program that the United Farm Workers was later founded by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta.

Border Incident (1949) centred on Pablo Rodriguez (played by Ricardo Montalbán), an agent of Mexico's Policía Judicial Federal (the Federal Judicial Police), and Jack Bearnes, an inspector for the United States' Immigration and Naturalization Service. The two are assigned to investigate a conspiracy whereby migrant workers are smuggled into the United States. Both men go undercover, Rodriguez as a bracero and Bearnes as a criminal who sells forged immigration permits.

Border Incident (1949) is a remarkable achievement in film noir. Much of this is because the film features several great performances. After playing in musicals, Ricardo Montalbán proves himself as a dramatic actor as Rodriguez. George Murphy also does an excellent job as Bearnes. While it is regrettably an example of brownface, James Mitchell does an excellent job of playing Juan Garcia, a poor bracero who simply wants to make a living for his family. Border Incident also boasts some beautiful cinematography. This should come as no surprise as it was shot by John Alton, who shot several film noirs before winning the Academy Award for Cinematography for An American in Paris (1951). It also benefits from an excellent script, with a taut plot and no shortage of action.

Indeed, Border Incident (1949) is not only a gritty film, but one that can be brutal at times. Characters are not simply stabbed or shot in Border Incident (1949). The climax is a gunfight set in a swamp filled with quicksand. In one memorable scene a character dies after being run over by a harrow. Even if one is accustomed to violence in film noir, Border Incident (1949) can be at times be difficult to watch.

What makes Border Incident (1949) even more remarkable is not its violence, it  is that, at a time when Mexican stereotypes were still all too common in Hollywood cinema, it treats the braceros with sympathy. The braceros are not criminals. They are not rapists. They are human beings who simply want to make a living for their families, no different from farmers living in the American Midwest. Indeed, despite the presence of George Murphy, there can be no doubt that Ricardo Montalbán as Pablo Rodriguez is the hero of Border Incident (1949). Rodriguez is a man who is dedicated to his job and has a strong sense of right and wrong, but at the same time he is very sympathetic to the plight of the braceros. While Border Incident (1949) does not make a strong political statement on the bracero program, in treating its Mexican characters as human beings it was in many respects a revolutionary movie for the time.

I think an argument can be made that Border Incident (1949) is one of the best film noirs ever made. It is a tough, gritty police procedural that pulls no punches and has never a slow moment. At the same time it has three dimensional characters played by actors giving some of the best performances of their careers. That having been said, what makes it truly remarkable is that it treats its Mexican characters with sympathy at a time when Mexican characters were often reduced to stereotypes.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

Fine analysis of one of the finest noir to come out of the era and the studio. Dore Schary wanted MGM to stand for something, and Border Incident made a sadly timely point.