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"If you're going to tell a story," director Anthony Mann once said, "instead of telling an intellectual story - which by necessity requires a tremendous number of words - you should pick one that has great pictorial qualities to start with." True to this strategy, Mann avoided scripts that were overtly political or moral as often as he could. As film historian Jeanine Basinger has pointed out, this helped make Mann's films powerful and direct, but also contributed to his being overlooked as an artist.
Border Incident (1949) is a perfect example. A dark, gripping film noir about illegal immigration on the Mexican border, the picture doesn't overly concern itself with politics. Instead, it depicts the plight of the immigrants, the ruthless cruelty of the smugglers, and the crime genre dramatics of the agents assigned to infiltrate the smuggling ring and bring it down.
Gorgeously shot by the great cinematographer John Alton - who worked with Mann many times - Border Incident is also a fine example of a film which makes its cheap budget an advantage, using shadows and lighting effects to involve an audience. Mann and Alton had just collaborated on T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948), two exceptional noirs made for the low-budget indie studio Eagle-Lion. Invited to MGM to direct Border Incident, Mann wisely took Alton with him. Theirs is now considered one of the great director-cinematographer relationships in American film. Their styles were perfectly suited for one another; each seemed to draw on the other's strengths.
The final section of Border Incident, for example, is a masterpiece of suspense and intensity, as Ricardo Montalban eludes capture high on a water tower, steals a truck and bears silent witness to his partner's grisly murder by tractor. A climax that culminates in death by quicksand is also shot and edited for maximum disturbing effect. Both Mann and Alton would soon move on to A-pictures, with Mann directing a classic series of Westerns with James Stewart, beginning with Winchester '73 (1950).
Border Incident was something of a departure for both its leads. George Murphy had become a star through many romantic comedies (Tom Dick and Harry, 1941) and musicals (For Me and My Gal, 1942). Ricardo Montalban had been typecast as a Latin lover at MGM, and this was an attempt to break away from that image with a gritty drama.
Also in the cast, look for Alfonso Bedoya as "Chuchillo." You may recognize him as the Mexican bandit "Gold Hat" from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) - the one who famously tells Humphrey Bogart, "We don't need no stinking badges!" Bedoya made over 40 films in Mexico as a character actor in the 1930s and 40s before Treasure brought him to Hollywood. He acted in a dozen more pictures in America before he died in 1957.
Producer: Nicholas Nayfack
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: John C. Higgins (also story), George Zuckerman (story)
Cinematography: John Alton
Film Editing: Conrad A. Nervig
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters
Music: Andre Previn
Cast: Ricardo Montalban (Pablo Rodriguez), George Murphy (Jack Bearnes), Howard Da Silva (Owen Parkson), James Mitchell (Juan Garcia), Arnold Moss (Zopilote), Alfonso Bedoya (Chuchillo).
BW-96m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold