Border Incident (1949): Anthony Mann’s Film Noir, Starring Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy

Representing a turning point in the evolving career of Anthony Mann, Border Incident is a quintessential film noir, both thematically and visually.

Grade: B (*** out of *****)

Mann achieved critical attention in the early 1950s, for the gritty Westerns he had made with Jimmy Stewart.

Made at MGM (a studio that didn’t make many dark films), the script was written by John C. Higgins and George Zuckerman.

It was shot by the ace cinematographer John Alton, who was known for his striking lighting effects.

Th movie begins with a long, overhead shot, and voice-over narration: “Here is the All-American Canal. It runs through the desert for miles along the California-Mexico border… Farming in Imperial Valley… requires a vast army of farm workers… and this army of workers comes from our neighbor to the south, from Mexico. … It is this problem of human suffering and injustice about which you should know. The following composite case is based upon factual information supplied by the Immigration and Naturalization Service…”

The story concerns two agents, one Mexican (PJF) and one American, whose mission is to stop the smuggling of Mexican migrant workers across the border to California.

The two agents go undercover, one disguised as a poor migrant.

Border Incident not only lacks one of the staples of film noir–the femme fatale–but also any female character at all.

The film includes some harrowingly violent scenes, including the death of an American by a mechanized arrow and a climactic shootout in a quicksand swamp.

Mann had previously directed some cherished film noirs, such as T-Men (1947), He Walked By Night (1948) and Raw Deal (1948).

Ricardo Montalban as Pablo Rodriguez
George Murphy as Jack Bearnes
Howard Da Silva as Owen Parkson
James Mitchell as Juan Garcia
Arnold Moss as Zopilote
Alfonso Bedoya as Cuchillo
Teresa Celli as Maria Garcia
Charles McGraw as Jeff Amboy
José Torvay as Pocoloco

End Note:

TCM showed the film on March 30, 2019, allowing me a chance to revisit it after several decades.