[box cover]

Border Incident

With Border Incident (1949), film noir begins its long, slow, decade-long transition to film soleil. Unlike most noir thrillers, it is set in the desert under the harsh sunlight. Whereas traditional noir had Venetian blinds, dark alleys, and rain swept streets, turning the city into an ominous landscape of crime and fear, Border Incident, as a film soleil, is immersed in dust, cactus, rock, sun, a terrain of ungiving harshness and Darwinian struggle, populated by little else but the many Mexican peasants hovering on the border awaiting their chance to enter America, where they are tracked not by state authorities but by ruthless criminals who rob and kill them. Border Incident is also one of the "procedural" crime thrillers popular at the time, an innovation of producer Louis De Rochemont in The House on 92nd Street in 1945. Thus Border Incident begins with narration and a great deal of attention to process and systems. Credited writers John C. Higgins and George Zuckerman begin by explaining the role of California desert agriculture in the American economy and the role of braceros, or Mexican laborers, in that agriculture. After that, the film is all Anthony Mann and John Alton's, as it tells of Mexican cop Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) and American officer Jack Bearnes (future senator George Murphy) infiltrating a bracero smuggling operation run by rancher Owen Parkson (Howard Da Silva) and his chief thug Jeff (Charles McGraw). Mann's T-Men (1947) and other vigorous thrillers made for Poverty Row studio Eagle-Lion had brought him to the attention of MGM, but it seems the gentility of the studio, known for its all-American light comedies and sophisticated musicals — the aesthetic equivalent of a raised pinky finger over a tea cup to noir's scarred fists — was not ready for Mann's ruthless violence or Alton's photography, which was like a pot of ink thrown in the audience's face. Border Incident has some of the most brutal fight scenes and killings to appear in a mainstream studio film of its era. Even more, the film has a political component unusual for the genre, and its main impulse is to seek friendship between the two neighbor nations. To that end, the calculus of the suspense plot takes the viewer in unexpected directions for a refreshing variation on otherwise common genre themes. Border Incident, part of Warner Home Video's "Film Noir Classic Collection: Vol. 3," comes in a full-frame black-and-white transfer derived from a scratched and spotted source-print, and Andre Previn's bracing score is audible thanks to the serviceable DD 1.0 audio. Subtitles come in English, French, and Spanish. Supplements include the film's trailer and a commentary track by Dana Polan, an NYU professor and the author of a BFI monograph on In a Lonely Place. It's brainier than the usual breed of such tracks — Polan notes the film's attention to class differences, the narrative's roots in cold war tensions, but also how Mann mixed in some western style elements, anticipating his own long career in the western genre. Polan also notes the recurrent theme in this and other movies of the time of waiting, the harsh unacknowledged reality of life in a land of plenty. Slimline snap-case in the box-set.
—D.K. Holm



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