BORDER INCIDENT. MGM, 1949. Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Howard Da Silva, James Mitchell, Arnold Moss, Charles McGraw. Director: Anthony Mann.
Border Incident is a film noir/crime film directed by Anthony Mann. It stars Ricardo Montalban as Pablo Rodriquez, a Mexican federal policeman, and George Murphy as Jack Bearnes, an American immigration agent. Set on the California-Mexico border, the movie follows the two government agents’ collaborative efforts to investigate the murder, and robbery, of Mexican farmworkers.
Unlike many movies categorized as films noir, there are no femme fatales, snappy bits of dialogue, or urbane gangsters in suits and fedoras.
There are, however, numerous moments of claustrophobic disorientation, including one stunningly effective sequence filmed on a water tower. There’s also a seedy neon-lit bar glimmering in the desert night and the harrowing murder scene of a helpless man. In Border Incident, nature is as noir as the city, with a desert canyon and quicksand proving that they can be just as deadly as a dame with a gun.
The film begins in a semi-documentary style, leading the viewer to believe he is about to watch a standard crime drama in which the good guys defeat the bad guys, everyone will slap each other on the back, and go out for drinks. When we first meet Pablo Rodriquez (Montalban) and Bearnes (Murphy), they are both clean, well dressed, and in good spirits.
It soon becomes apparent, however, that they’re not about to face anything typical. From the moment that Rodriquez goes undercover and befriends Juan Garcia (James Mitchell), a Mexican farm worker who wants to cross illegally, we get the sense that things aren’t going to go smoothly after all.
Anthony Mann sets the mood perfectly. The Mexican side of the border is chaotic, disorienting, and filled with sketchy characters that come out at night. Among them are the Teutonic-looking Hugo Wolfgang Ulrich (Sig Ruman), the proprietor of a lowlife bar, and his two thugs, Cuchillo (Alfonso Bedoya) and Zipilote (Arnold Moss). Although we never learn what a gruff German bar owner is doing in a border town, we do soon learn that he’s knee-deep in crime and is willing to utilize brute force against his perceived enemies.
As it turns out, Hugo is working with with an American farm owner on the other side of the border, a creepy looking guy by the name of Owen Parkson (Howard Da Silva) who treats his land like a plantation, and his workers like pawns on a chessboard. Parkson, along with his chief henchman, Jeff Amboy (Charles McGraw), are true villains. There’s nothing remotely amusing, let alone redeemable, about these two guys. Da Silva and McGraw may not have had star billing, but they are very effective in portraying criminals indifferent to human life and suffering.
Rodriquez and Bearnes succeed in infiltrating Parkson’s estate, but nothing goes according to plan. Both men face dangers that seem to come out of nowhere, or at least take them by surprise. It’s as if both men never expected to face such adversity in their current assignment. There are some very tense moments, almost all of which take place at night.
Border Incident isn’t a particularly well-known film noir, but it’s a very good one. The film successfully encapsulates many aspects of the noir genre, from the focus on the dark side of human nature to Mann’s skillful use of shadow and lighting to convey meaning. It’s a dark film, both metaphorically, and in its cinematography. Although it wasn’t a box office success, it is nevertheless a good example of what a talented director can do on a meager budget. Highly recommended.