Director: Anthony Mann
By Roderick Heath
Like many, my first sight of Ricardo Montalban, who died January 14, was in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1981), where his glorious, high-camp performance elicited the most immortal of enraged screams from William Shatner (all together now: Khaaaaaaaaaaan!). Other associations were just as cheesy: Fantasy Island and Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Montalban’s name became like, say, Doug McClure’s, associated with good-natured crap. Part of this was due to his being a willing and peerless self-satirist, beginning in 1969 with Sweet Charity (“Do you ever watch your own movies?” “I like to think I have better taste than that.”) through to his bad guy in The Naked Gun (1987). Montalban, who fought very hard early on to raise the profile and respect of Latino actors, ultimately was swamped by the kinds of cliched images he had long sought to subvert.
It was hard to imagine that when he was beginning his film career that Montalban could be an intelligent, intense, but carefully modulated, stereotype-rupturing actor. His accent, later so plummy, was clipped and steely; his eyes had the keen attention of a hunting dog. Having made several Mexican films in the mid 1940s, he made the leap to starring roles in Hollywood with Fiesta (1947) and other asinine musicals with Esther Williams. His inevitable niche casting as the Latin lover or some other dubious ethnic type continued in stupid film after stupid film. But three works in a row at the crux of the century promised a career that otherwise never came about: Border Incident, for Anthony Mann; Battleground (1949), for William Wellman; and Mystery Street (1950), for John Sturges. There’s no cheese in those movies and none in Montalban, who seems as poised and talented here as any of the more famous male movie stars of the era.
The best of these films is Border Incident, a diamond-hard little noir classic, the cornerstone of Mann’s shift from film noir to westerns, and a prescient work that anticipates both the cold, violent bent of modern thrillers and the worldly concerns of works like Babel and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. It begins and ends with one of those pompous, propagandistic voiceovers—that shorthand of the time intended, as handheld cameras are today, to establish an air of docu-veracity—detailing the necessity of Mexican migrant labour (the braceros) for harvesting in the Imperial Valley and, thus, the American way in general, and how everything will be all right—a stance the film ruthlessly interrogates. The prologue segues quickly enough into a startling sequence in which illegal braceros try to sneak back across the border into Mexico, only to be intercepted by killers on horseback who slaughter them and dump their corpses into a marsh in the aptly named Canyon de la Muerte.
It’s a singularly eye-catching opening, not least because of Mann’s ironic use of Fordian framings of the horsemen arrayed against a mottled-cloud sky and rugged cliffs, beginning on a vast plain and resolving in the bleak vision of the victims’ faces sinking into the mud. Someone’s importing illegal workers, paying them off, then having their henchmen wait to round them up, rob their wages, and knock them off. Being as they are illegal, they are unprotected by law, as fatuous U.S. official John MacReynolds (Harry Antrim) reminds Rafael Alvardo (Martin Garralaga) and Pablo Rodriguez (Montalban), the two Mexican federal agents who come to consult with him. Nonetheless, a joint operation is set up in which Pablo will work in coordination with FBI agent Jack Bearnes (George Murphy).
Pablo and Jack set about entering the belly of the beast. Pablo poses as a bracero and makes friends with Juan (James Mitchell), a worker with a wife and child who waits in line hopelessly every day to be chosen for a work crew. Pablo asks Juan how he might make it across the border illegally, and Juan tells him how, joining his new amigo quickly enough in approaching the agents of a people-smuggling racket run out of the tavern of the sleazy Hugo Ulrich (Sig Ruman!). Knocking on his door is visually and morally akin to entering the underworld. It’s fitting for Mann’s highly tactile sensibility that Pablo immediately stumbles because the racketeers have an old woman feel the hands of every prospective bracero: she immediately recognises that Pablo is no farm labourer. Threatened, Pablo says he’s a gangster desperate to hide out from his boss’s minions after filching his money, a story they eventually swallow. Pablo’s soon rushed over the border along with Juan and other workers in the not-so-tender care of roughneck Jeff Amboy (Charles MacGraw).
Jack, meanwhile, poses as a man wanted by the FBI for stealing what the traffickers desperately need: fake work permits that can be given out to the braceros. Jack gets a worse time of it than Pablo, tortured with electric shocks from a car battery by Ulrich and his goofy but deadly thugs Zopilote (Arnold Moss) and Chuchillo (Alfonso Bedoya). Jack holds out long enough to gain access to the mastermind of this scam—Owen Parkson (Howard Da Silva), a pastoralist, human trafficker, and all-round Machiavellian creep. He makes a deal with Jack for the permits, but soon finds through his net of precautions who Jack really is, prompting a singularly vicious revenge from which Pablo can’t rescue him. Jack is left crippled on an open field and a tractor plough driven over him.
Jack’s death is a teeth-grinding sequence, as both camera and tractor gets closer and closer to Jack, until the frame is filled with the hulking mechanisms of the tractor and an ultra-close-up of Jack’s anguished face. It’s the kind of Mann-ly moment that so singularly distinguishes his films among mid-century genre films with its harsh violence, disrespect of familiarity, absence of sentimentality, and deliberate kick to the teeth of the audience. It’s supposed to be the likable ethnic sidekick who gets it in the neck, not the likeable yank. It’s far from the only moment of nascent nastiness in the film: Jack was tortured earlier with electric shocks from a car battery, and there are shootings, beatings, knifings, and an all-round sense of the utter expendability of life where Pablo and Jack are sent by their bosses. A recurring image is of Chuchillo’s hunting knife being pressed against a face: first it’s Jack’s, and later, Juan’s, as Juan and Chuchillo engage in a life-and-death battle (of course Chuchillo will get it in his own neck).
The fiercely well-staged finale fulfills Mann’s flawless sense of dramatic antagonism channeled through characters presented in binaries, battling in a pitiless physical environment, and tying in with the film’s very core—the border and the mirror reflections found on either side. Everyone has an opposite and counterpart: Pablo and Juan as Mexicans battle their evil countrymen Zopilote and Chuchillo, their evil gringo counterparts Amboy and Clayton Nordell (Arthur Hunnicutt). Amboy also reflects Parkson as he becomes ambitious and contemptuous of his boss (after he’s fooled by Jack), turning against and assassinating Parkson in order to supplant him. Amboy’s wife’s (Lynn Whitney) hard loyalty contrasts the quiet stoicism of Juan’s wife. Jack and Pablo are only the most obvious examples, as partners in fighting crime, though also in some cheeky ways: having worked together before, they even shared a “girl we picked up” on a previous case. “The last I heard of her she was getting much less beautiful in a prison,” Pablo informs Jack.
Except for right at the start and right at the end, Mann dispenses entirely with music except for background sources, so that the central hour of the film is defined by a remarkable quiet: the hushed, menacing, shadow-laden space of Ulrich’s tavern and the incredibly claustrophobic quality of the wide-open border country, mostly at night. The film is so tightly wound that even in its brief 93-minute running time, it offers memorable adorning vignettes, from Juan’s quietly intense farewell to his wife in a church after listening to another bracero’s account of nearly being murdered to Zopilote and Chuchillo exploring the unfamiliar modernity of Parkson’s office, to Parkson’s habit of playing chess to learn how his opponents think. (“No don’t do that, you’ll lose your queen,” he warns Jack. “Well I did it, let it stand,” Jack decides, like his own fateful choices.)
Border Incident never loses its monomaniacal focus, and yet conjures depth in its social and character milieu. Although it’s chiefly memorable as a model of Mann’s talent, the film is given all the more grit by having an actual Mexican actor play Pablo (rather than someone like, say, Charlton Heston). Montalban is cool and physically graceful, quick-witted, and persuasive without being too pasteurised: like the film, he does what he has to, and no more. He outclasses Murphy, who comes across in acting as he later became in politics—the second-string Ronald Reagan. But the rest of the cast is peppered with a fine selection of character actors, amongst whom the igneous grit of MacGraw is a standout. It all comes together in the kind of package that to me embodies everything tough and rich about classic film noir with not much of the soft. Although that damned voiceover tells us everything will be all right, that’s not what you remember. It’s that tractor grinding ever closer and closer…