Monday, May 12, 2014

Border Incident

The wonderful Ricardo Montalban—then 28 years old and not yet a star, certainly not the household name of TV’s FANTASY ISLAND and Chrysler commercials—commands the big screen as the leading man of BORDER INCIDENT, filmed and released by MGM in 1949.

This hard-hitting procedural was the fourth collaboration (if you include THEY WALKED BY NIGHT, which gives Alfred Werker the directing credit, but Mann worked on it) between director Anthony Mann, screenwriter John Higgins, and the great cinematographer John Alton, a master at realistic lighting for black-and-white film. Their previous films, T-MEN and RAW DEAL (as well as THEY WALKED BY NIGHT), are terrific crime dramas, tackling then-contemporary issues with a toughness and grit unusual for the 1940s, and BORDER INCIDENT deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with them.

BORDER INCIDENT delves into the illegal immigration of Mexicans across the American border—a hot-button issue to this day. In keeping with their earlier films, Mann and Alton tell Higgins’ story in semi-documentary style that gives it the immediacy of a newsreel and add edge-of-the-seat suspense for extra impact in scenes involving quicksand, a deadly tractor, and a stalking on a water tower. Anchoring the film are Latin lover Montalban and musical-comedy star George Murphy (THIS IS THE ARMY) as border patrol agents just doing a job—a dangerous job.

Mexican federale Pablo Rodriguez (Montalban) goes undercover as a bracero—a manual laborer—to crack the human smuggling ring from the inside. Meanwhile, his partner, American agent Jack Bearnes (Murphy), poses as a crook with counterfeit work permits to sell. Both paths lead to cruel California rancher Parkson (Howard da Silva) and his equally nasty foreman Amboy (Charles McGraw), both of whom use ethnic slurs to cow their meek braceros and could care less about murdering them if it means avoiding capture.

Adding to the realism is the casting of real Mexicans in Mexican roles, one exception being Arnold Moss (Kodos the Executioner in STAR TREK’s “Conscience of the King”), who is quite believable as a baddie. The sadistic violence, including Bearnes’ torture by car battery and especially the heartbreaking murder by tractor mentioned above, must have certainly raised eyebrows in 1949, but for Mann to have flinched at showing the brutality of the human trafficking world would have diluted the power of BORDER INCIDENT.

Both Montalban and Murphy are up to their unconventional casting and make a nice team, even though they spend most of the film apart. Murphy retired from acting just a few years later to go into politics, including six years as a U.S. Senator from California. Montalban, of course, became one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men, hitting his height as FANTASY ISLAND’s mysterious Mr. Rourke and as Captain Kirk’s vengeful rival in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN.

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