A taut, engrossing, and occasionally shocking thriller that addresses potent issues, Border Incident has flown under the radar for far too long. Director Anthony Mann combines the best components of film noir, westerns, and police procedurals in this riveting exposé of migrant worker exploitation and abuse. Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy lead a strong cast and Warner Archive's five-star transfer struck from a 4K scan of the best preservation elements thrusts us into the action. Excellent audio and a top-notch commentary track cap off this terrific release of a must-see movie. Highly Recommended.
When RKO production chief Dore Schary moved over to MGM in 1948, he locked horns with studio chief Louis B. Mayer over the type of films MGM would mount going forward. Mayer favored MGM's tried-and-true, bread-and-butter slate of opulent, escapist musicals and heartwarming family pictures, while Schary lobbied for "message" movies with adult themes that would examine topical social issues and strike a chord with jaded post-World War II audiences. Schary's first MGM film, Battleground, an uncompromising account of the Battle of the Bulge, would become the studio's top-grossing picture of 1949, and Border Incident, produced the same year, was most likely one of his pet projects as well.
The gripping story of an undercover operation by the U.S. government to halt the illegal smuggling of Mexican migrant workers across the California border and their subsequent exploitation and abuse by a group of ruthless racketeers has Schary's fingerprints all over it. The taut, at times harrowing drama directed by Anthony Mann casts a brutal light on a serious quagmire that America still grapples with today. Though Border Incident doesn't tackle immigration, it identifies the tangential problems of human trafficking and lobbies for safe and sustainable labor agreements between the United States and Mexico. Sadly, it didn't do nearly as well as Battleground at the box office, but it still plays exceptionally well today.
Border Incident is one of those films that makes you think, "Where has this movie been all my life? Why wasn't I aware of it? How could I possibly have missed it?" It's a stirring and affecting social issue movie, but first and foremost it's a highly entertaining, exceptionally crafted motion picture. Masterfully constructed and executed by the formidable triumvirate of Mann, screenwriter John C. Higgins, and cinematographer John Alton - the same trio who produced the top-notch film noirs T-Men and Raw Deal a year or two earlier - Border Incident bridges the gap between Mann's gritty noir movies of the 1940s and psychological westerns of the 1950s. With its dusty California locales and a climax that transpires in a craggy, desolate canyon, Border Incident brings the western into its noir framework and adds the semi-documentary elements of the police procedural as well. That might sound like an odd mishmash, but it works like a charm.
A prologue stresses the agricultural importance of Southern California's Imperial Valley and how it relies on a "vast army" of Mexican farm workers to sustain itself. These braceros must secure "the coveted work permit," which they receive at designated border crossings, to legally labor in the U.S., but the relative scarcity of such documents forces desperate workers into the clutches of avaricious racketeers who sneak them across the border, then treat them like slaves. A voice-of- God narrator informs us Border Incident is a "composite case" based upon factual information supplied by the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) is the chief of the Mexican border patrol and Jack Bearnes (George Murphy) is the stateside inspector. Both men are tapped by their governments to go undercover and infiltrate the nefarious gangs through different avenues. Pablo masquerades as a bracero to dissect the trafficking and abuse angle of the operation, while Jack poses as an opportunistic permit broker who must negotiate and finalize a deal with head honcho Owen Parkson (Howard Da Silva) in order to expose the criminal intent of his organization. Both Pablo and Jack get more than they bargain for and find themselves trapped in a tangled web from which there is no easy escape route.
Border Incident grabs you from the beginning and doesn't loosen its grip until the final fade-out. The violence is shocking for a film that still had to adhere to the stringent Production Code and the tension and suspense are at times almost unbearable. I literally writhed and squirmed in my seat as some agonizing struggles played out and can't remember any other 1940s movie provoking such an extreme and visceral response. Higgins' tough yet literate script keeps you guessing by subtly planting seeds that lead you to believe anything can happen and no one - no matter how big a star they might be - is safe. Again, that's rare for a 1940s picture, but the situations Pablo and Jack must finesse and navigate are so sticky and tricky (and I mean that literally and figuratively) you just can't predict their respective fates.
The fact that Mann was never even nominated for an Oscar for any of his movies blows my mind. (He earned three Director's Guild nods, but never won.) I haven't yet seen a Mann film that hasn't impressed me with its style, pacing, artistry, and structure, and Border Incident is no exception. It excels in all those categories while also addressing important themes. Though the ending is a bit too pat and leads us to believe the problem at the border has been solved, the troubling events of recent years lend the movie a timeless quality and heighten its relevance and resonance. The specific issues at the border today may be different, but the efforts to mitigate them remain just as intense.
Aside from its brilliant direction, first-rate script, and stunning cinematography, Border Incident boasts an array of top-notch performances led by Montalban and Murphy, both of whom surprised me with their intense portrayals. (The two men also appear in Battleground, but that movie was an ensemble picture. Border Incident puts them in the spotlight and they maximize the exposure.) Prior to watching Border Incident, I unfairly dismissed Montalban as a lightweight actor, probably due to his work on the lightweight TV series Fantasy Island, which was a big hit during my youth, and his appearances in many lightweight MGM musicals in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Shame on me. His work here is natural, sincere, passionate, and riveting.
And shame on me for dismissing Murphy as little more than an affable song-and-dance man who hoofed with such esteemed partners as Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell (Broadway Melody of 1940), Shirley Temple (Little Miss Broadway), and Judy Garland (For Me and My Gal) in the 1930s and early 1940s. His noble, square-jawed Border Incident performance, which he laces with an affecting sensitivity, makes me wish he could have reinvented himself the way crooner Dick Powell did when he played Raymond Chandler's iconic detective Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, which launched a second career for him in film noir. Murphy's turn in Border Incident leaves little doubt he too would have made a solid noir hero and his portrayal of Jack Bearnes just might rank as the finest of his career.
The supporting cast also shines brightly. James Mitchell disappears so completely into his Mexican character, an authentic bracero who befriends Pablo and becomes a critical ally, it took me a while to recognize him. As the racket's mastermind and ringleader, Da Silva is smooth, cocky, and ruthless and the always reliable and undeniably macho Charles McGraw seems to relish his sadistic role as chief henchman.
Mann made many marvelous movies over the course of his too-brief career (he died in 1967 at age 60), but after seeing Border Incident, it amazes me that discussions of his work don't single out this compelling thriller as one of his notable pictures. I can't pinpoint a reason why Border Incident gets short shrift, but I'm hoping its release on Blu-ray will enhance its reputation and put it on the lofty perch where it belongs. If you're a fan of Mann's noirs and westerns, you've got to check out Border Incident. It's the best of both worlds and a memorable cinematic ride.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Border Incident arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand new 4K scan of the best preservation elements yields a spectacular 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that both faithfully honors and beautifully showcases the gorgeous cinematography of John Alton. Faint grain preserves the film-like feel, but it's the dazzlingly crisp picture that really grabs attention. Inky blacks, well-defined whites that resist blooming, and a superior grayscale all combine to produce a crystal clear image that features excellent contrast and brims with depth. Much of Border Incident transpires at night and Alton's unerring eye ensures each nocturnal shot flaunts an organic look. Superb shadow delineation keeps crush at bay and the fine textures of craggy rocks, dirt, and mud jump off the screen. Razor-sharp close-ups showcase glistening sweat, facial stubble, and pores and not a single nick, mark, or errant blotch dot the pristine print. These days, almost every Warner Archive transfer earns - that's right, earns - five stars, but this one is truly special and makes Border Incident a more immersive, enriching, and at times wrenching experience.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies robust sound that heightens tension and enhances the atmosphere of this gritty drama. A wide dynamic scale embraces all the highs and lows of four-time Oscar-winner André Previn's stirring score (one of his first) and all the dialogue is well prioritized and easy to comprehend. Sonic accents like gunfire, truck and tractor engines, and fisticuffs are distinct, while subtleties like footsteps and the gentle, rhythmic gears of a water pump shine and surreptitiously ramp up suspense. No distortion creeps into the mix and any age-related hiss, pops, or crackle have been meticulously erased. Sound plays more of a role in Border Incident than one might think and this high-quality track handles everything the film throws at it with ease.
The two extras from the 2006 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release.
Audio Commentary - Film historian Dana Polan supplies a thoughtful and absorbing commentary that analyzes the film's themes and mythological elements, examines how the movie both positively and negatively depicts Mexicans, and looks at how Mann combines elements of the western into this police procedural/government agency movie. He also assesses Alton's cinematography, praises his geometric shot compositions, and discusses how the film veers away from typical Golden Age fare and breaks conventions. ("The old dream factory is now giving us nightmares.") Polan doesn't include any cast or crew bios or production info, but such omissions don't harm this highly worthwhile track one whit.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview touts its "stranger than fiction" story and location filming.
A well-made, well-acted film that delivers both an important message and thrilling entertainment experience, the long-neglected Border Incident deserves to jump to the top of your viewing list. Mann's expert direction, the sterling performances of Montalban, Murphy, and Mitchell, the crackling script, and striking cinematography combine to create a magnetic movie you won't soon forget. A fantastic transfer struck from a 4K scan of the best preservation elements, robust audio, and a solid commentary add lots of luster to this quality Warner Archive release. Highly Recommended.