This is a revised version of an essay that first appeared in a 1997 edition of CTEQ: Annotations on Film.
Border Incident (1949) sits within the cycle of “procedural” film noir that came into prominence in the late 1940s, a series of films characterised by their attention to the details of specific, often real cases, an occasional mundaneness, a downbeat mood, a performed documentary quality, and, in the case of the films of Anthony Mann, a brutal, violence-pocked and almost sadistic edge. Like T-Men (1947), produced almost two years before, Border Incident follows a “composite” case from the Law Enforcement Agency of a particular Federal Department; in this case the undercover agents are immigration officials working on the border between Mexico and the United States. Structurally near identical to T-Men, Border Incident benefits from a shift of studio (to MGM), a substantial increase in budget and a surprisingly successful use of glossy studio stars: “exotic” Ricardo Montalban as Pedro and the more pedestrian George Murphy (later a Republican senator) as Jack. Possibly as a consequence of these factors, Border Incident seems a more composed and even film, without the now characteristic, iconic, almost clichéd noir moments and images of T-Men and Raw Deal (1948) – all three were shot by the extraordinary John Alton, a cinematographer whose work defines the look, feel and sensibility of Mann’s dark, often brutal cinema in the late 1940s (1). Unlike its predecessors, Border Incident is also much less interested in establishing a personal rapport between its protagonists (though male friendship and loyalty do take the place of romance in these Mann films), or in investing them with a personal life or psychology outside of their function as government agents. In many ways that is a significant strength.
Mann’s “universe” – at least in these noir films and his starker 1950s Westerns – is pure, elemental and categorically raw. Yet, there are few shades between good and evil here. We do not enter the seamy, endlessly crisscrossed, inherently noir or fluid border world we have become familiar with through such films as Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). The border does not throw up a hybrid culture and geography, a schizophrenic melange of disenfranchised and displaced individuals, but operates instead as a “cattle-run” to be exploited by whoever occupies the high ground. There is nothing funky, despite an early, urgent score by André Previn, baroque or even decadent about this environment. Across-the-border Mexico is not the romantic, lawless and concentrically closing-in idyll of Sam Peckinpah (or that imagined by characters in a Nick Ray movie) but simply a geography hanging below the United States. The difference between the two cultures here is more a matter of inequitable economies and different stages of development than soft underbellies (and softness is not a quality generally characteristic of Mann’s cinema). The difference becomes a matter of “sophistication” and scale: throat-slashing bandits, smugglers and counterfeiters on the Mexico-side, the technologically streamlined, mass-manpowered machine of exploitation on the US-side. In fact, the film goes out of its way to be even-handed, promoting collaboration, procedure, and personal sacrifice as self-consciously foregrounded solutions to what are actually more ingrained and substantive problems.
In hindsight what is most fascinating about Border Incident is how it draws together, often in odd ways, the two dominant generic frames of Mann’s cinema. It is perhaps in this film that we get a first glimpse of Mann’s eye for barren and elemental Western landscapes, though the moral ambiguity, complexity and questioning of myths that haunts such 1950s Mann Westerns as Bend of the River (1952), Naked Spur (1953), The Man from Laramie (1955), is not really to be found here. The bleakness and worldliness of the landscape is emphasised by Alton’s deep focus, high-contrast cinematography (where blacks seem to shimmer over blacks and things only gradually form outlines). The landscape reflects less back upon character than it provides a desolate, rugged and expansive geography for the characters to merge into. It is, matter-of-factly, a harsh environment. Mexico and its borders move from being the site of myth, a fiction or realm of Western fantasy, and toward being a very real material barrier.
Typical of films of the “procedural” cycle Border Incident, at times anyway, has an almost documentary feel to it. It opens with a newsreel-like montage that stakes out the key elements in and moral groundwork for the drama we are about to see. Yet, Mann’s films in this cycle are rather odd entities; their socially conscious documentary qualities (stock footage, voiceover, reference to actual cases) seem flat and perfunctory while their sadistic detailing of violence, brutality and grisly murder is far more seductive. Essentially Mann’s cinema (or at least the key works and throughlines within it) is a jagged and volatile thing, which juggles spaces, bodies and violent actions with “more cruel intimacy than any other film-maker” (2). In keeping with this, both T-Men and Border Incident are dominated by a striking scene in which one of the two undercover agents watches horrified as his partner is “executed” by the criminal ring they have infiltrated. The comparative scene in T-Men is all lighting (or lack thereof) and oblique camera angles, its brevity, straightforwardness of action and verbal succinctness (not to mention its aphoristic existentialism) its most remarkable qualities. The requisite scene in Border Incident is far more elaborate and sadistic, but no less striking. Again the visuals are almost hallucinatory, as we get mere glimpses of character action and exchange through the slashes of light that mould Alton’s painfully dark, almost chiaroscuro world. We could almost be fooled into thinking that we won’t see the murder when it comes, just read it reflected in the face of Pedro as he looks on horrified while unable to act (the scene jockeys back and forth between four distinct perspectives or points-of-view). But just at the right moment the film stages a cruel cut which makes us watch, close-up and almost through the character, as Jack’s body is chewed up by the tractor. In the end there is no escaping the intense physicality that such moments of extreme bodily violence evoke in Mann’s cinema. There is no celebration or marking of the dead except as the subject for Grand Guignol spectacle. Once characters leave the film’s material and elemental world they are lost to it, the romantic and fatalistic beckoning of death characteristic of much noir is nowhere to be found here. We care about characters in Mann’s films but they are fallible, and they do not transcend the material world we find them in. There are no souls, only bodies here.
- Alton also shot He Walked by Night (credited to Alfred L. Werker but supposedly largely directed by Mann), Reign of Terror (1949) and Devil’s Doorway (1950) for Mann.
- Manny Farber, Negative Space, Studio Vista, London, 1971, p. 17.
Border Incident (1949 USA 92 mins)
Prod Co: MGM Prod: Nicholas Nayfack Dir: Anthony Mann Scr: John C. Higgins Phot: John Alton Ed: Conrad A. Nervig Art Dir: Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters Mus: André Previn
Cast: Ricardo Montalban, Goerge Murphy, Howard da Silva, James Mitchell, Arnold Moss, Charles McGraw, Alfonso Bedoya, Sig Ruman