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teaser Borderline (1950)

You could call Borderline (1950) a south of the border noir, a crime drama playing out in the cantinas, cheap tourist hotels, and dusty desert roads of Mexico and across the U.S.-Mexico border at Tijuana, where the drug trade flows into the United States.

Police woman Madeleine Haley (Claire Trevor), following a lead provided by a smuggler arrested in Los Angeles, goes undercover as a showgirl in Mexico to find the drug supplier with a taste for "cheap blondes" (Raymond Burr) and ends up on the road with American hood Johnny Macklin (Fred MacMurray). The two freelancers team up to smuggle a cache of narcotics over the border, bantering along the way while slipping from wary partners to lovers, neither realizing the other has an ulterior motive.

The low budget production, shot mostly in the California deserts and on anonymous sets playing the cheap hotel rooms and chintzy Mexican nightclub, was produced by Milton H. Bren, a former MGM executive who married Trevor in 1948. The part of Madeleine was perfect for his wife, who was no stranger to tough broads. In such classic film noirs as Murder, My Sweet (1944), Raw Deal (1948), and Key Largo (1948), she played women who had gotten knocked around and scuffed up by life. In the opening scenes of Borderline she comes on more like an excitable cub reporter than a veteran officer and a former O.S.S. agent in her first scenes. At least until she hits Mexico and slips into character as a cheap American bar girl, a woman barely talented enough to land a job dancing in a Mexican nightclub as a chorus girl. Once in character, she rolls with the punches with the best of them, playing the cheap blonde in front of Johnny while snapping evidence with her hidden camera while his back is turned.

Fred MacMurray didn't really fit the gangster type -- in the prime of his leading man career he was usually cast as nice guys in light dramas, romantic comedies, and musicals, and he later turned into America's most beloved dad in the long-running sitcom My Three Sons -- but he could be hardboiled when called for, as in Double Indemnity (1944). His affable personality worked well when cast against type and he brings a matter-of-fact toughness to Johnny, bursting into the film with a gun in his hand, a directness that leans toward torture when interrogation fails, and a side of sardonic commentary delivered through a weary grin.

Before he found fame as Perry Mason on the long-running TV series, Raymond Burr made a specialty of cheap crime bosses and shady shysters, the quintessential slow-speaking heavy who used his bulk, dark eyes, and deep voice to intimidate. But he was more than a B-movie Sydney Greenstreet. Burr's villains suggested the small-time boss playing the big shot, putting on a sneering, arrogant front to cover insecurity and ambition, and hinting at a streak of sadism under his indignation.

Director William A. Seiter began in the silent era and established himself as a comedy specialist, directing the likes of Reginald Denny, Wheeler and Woolsey, Laurel & Hardy, and the Marx Brothers, but like most of his contemporaries became a jack of all trades. He made dramas, romantic comedies, westerns, and musicals, including four Shirley Temple films in the thirties and, more recently, four with Universal Picture sweetheart Deanna Durbin. Borderline is a rare crime drama in his filmography and came toward the end of a busy film career. He made a successful transition to television just a few years later.

He doesn't get a screen credit but film buffs and lovers of classic movies will immediately recognize Charles Lane by face, if not by name, in a small role as the U.S. Customs Agent in the final act. Thin and looking older than his years, this ubiquitous character actor appeared in hundreds of movies and TV shows, usually as miserly old men or cynical, smart-talking professionals, but is probably most recognized for his many Frank Capra films, especially his single scene in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) as Mr. Potter's rent collector.

By Sean Axmaker

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