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To penetrate a gang exploiting illegal Mexican farmworkers smuggled into California (and leaving no live witnesses), Mexican federal agent Pablo Rodriguez poses as an ignorant bracero, while his American counterpart Jack Bearnes works from outside. Soon, both are in deadly danger from the ringleader, sinister rancher Owen Parkson, and find night on the farm to be full of shadowy film-noir menace... Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Near movie's end, Pablo Rodriguez (Montalban) is almost fully submerged in quicksand. However, immediately upon being pulled out, he looks like he's had a shower; the quicksand that had been on his face and hair is completely gone. See more »
Anthony Mann makes the crossing from noir to Western...
Border Incident starts off in the typical 'Your Government Working For You' fashion that makes so many noirs start at a crawl before finally getting into the story. The dialogue feels like it hasn't just been approved by every law enforcement body in America and Mexico but written by them as well. At first it looks like Anthony Mann's strong directorial style will never surface through the MGM production line sheen, but having got the advertorial exposition out of the way he seems to gradually wrest control away from the suits the further away he gets from them on location until it's definitely a Mannly film, and one that offers a direct point of transition between his noirs and his dark psychological westerns. By the time its ill-starred characters have moved from a secure world of visual order and perfectly composed balance and traversed a hostile landscape as desolate as the people-smugglers' morality to end up in one of Mann's beloved mountain/canyon shootouts, there's no doubt who is calling the shots.
Mann's trademark violence is also very much in evidence, with the film offering one truly strikingly unpleasant death for 1949 - when shooting and being brutally rifle-butted in the head doesn't finish off the victim, something even more searingly violent does the trick: dust to dust indeed. But that's very much in keeping with the characters' brutally disinterested attitude to death. People aren't just killed, they're literally swallowed by a callous and impersonal land that leaves no trace of their ever having existed. Once there's no more profit to be made from the illegals or their own cohorts, they simply disappear forever. Mann had no equal in using the landscape to define character, but here the landscape itself is not just a character but an accomplice.
A big part of the credit belongs to cinematographer John Alton, who Mann apparently insisted on taking with him when he moved from Eagle-Lion to a contract with Leo. His deep blacks, his great sense of changing perspective (an important visual motif in all of Mann's films), his intelligent use of long lenses to expand the moral and physical distance between protagonists, and one remarkable night sequence where a truck leaves an almost luminous trail of dust in its wake help elevate what could have just been a production-line procedural into something much more primal and substantial. It's not just a matter of making striking images - the director and cinematographer's complimentary visual imaginations don't simply serve the story but also establish these characters' place in the world and their shifting relationships as power and loyalty become increasingly fluid commodities.
Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy may seem unlikely leads, but they work better than expected, and there's a great cast of character players to back them up - Alfonso Bedoya, Arnold Ross (so memorable in Mann's Reign of Terror/The Black Book), Charles MacGraw, Arthur Hunnicutt and the great Sig Rumann. Quietly towering over them all is Howard Da Silva's confident and almost casual ringleader, a man who finds that control is illusory. Despite having the best (but still unshowy) dialogue, the temptations to become a stereotype are avoided in favor of a much more interesting and rounded creation - he doesn't need to act menacing because he has people to do that for him.
Like most of Mann's noirs (with the exception of the period thriller Reign of Terror/The Black Book), it's not one of the great Mann films - but it ends up a damn good one. I kinda liked it...
Warners' Region 1 DVD boasts a good transfer and an excellent commentary by Dana Polan and the original theatrical trailer.
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