Overlooked & Underseen: Border Incident (1949)
This past week my husband, who is taking a Southwestern Literature class, asked me to read one of the books he had just finished, “This book is fantastic. I think you should read it.” It was was 2001's The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea. It’s the story of a group of men who were smuggled over the U.S. border from Mexico. Their story was one of extreme hardship and ended in tragedy for nearly all involved. I finished the book within 24 hours, it was that great. While looking for a movie to talk about this week, we were perusing FilmStruck when we came across the noir film, Border Incident. Not only had I not seen it, I’d never heard of it. Again, my husband said “Oh, that is a great movie!” I looked at the synopsis and was sold. It had the same type of premise as the book I had just read. I was a little worried. I wondered how filmmakers in 1949 would treat this topic.
In the late 1940s, the governments of the United States and Mexico got together to come up with a plan to curb the flow of illegal immigration. They wanted to stop both the American farmers who were essentially “buying” the migrants to work as slave laborers and they wanted to stop the men in Mexico who were transporting the migrants across the border. In the film, Pablo Rodríguez (a very young Ricardo Montalbán) and Jack Bearnes (George Murphy) are tasked with infiltrating this smuggling operation.
Rodríguez goes undercover as a “bracero”, the name they use for the men who want to go to the United States to work on farms during the harvest seasons. There is a legal way to go over to the States but the wait to get “papers” can be days, even weeks. Pablo finds out who can get him across the border illegally and he buys his way into the group about to be taken across. Bearnes does his best to tail Pablo as the group moves across the border. Once they are across, they are taken to a ranch operated by Owen Parkson, played by the amazing Henry Da Silva. Parkson controls the smuggling operation in the El Centro, California area. He knows once he buys these migrant workers, he can treat them anyway he wants because what are the men going to do, go to the police? They are paid 25 cents an hour, work 6 days a week, and are charged $6 a week for their food. The men know they are being cheated but they feel trapped. They are guarded day and night by men with guns.
Bearnes gets caught by Parkson’s men. They know he’s working for the Feds. They know they have to take care of Bearnes and go on the lamb themselves before they are caught by the authorities. Rodríguez realizes their cover has been blown and tries to save Bearnes before it’s too late.
There are scenes here that echo the situation discussed in the book The Devil’s Highway. Let me tell you, I was more than a little uncomfortable watching the scenes that take place in the California desert. The film never once made the migrants out to be the “bad guys”. They were portrayed as men who were only trying to provide for their families. These men were used by the likes of Parkson, who were only out to make money off the misery of the workers. Those were the bad guys.
The film is straight-up noir, with wonderful use of shadows and unusual camera angles. The cinematographer, Academy Award winner John Alton, worked with Mann on several films. Together, these two men make one amazing looking movie. There is one rather tense scene involving a giant piece of farming equipment that is quite harrowing in its depiction of an execution.
Ricardo Montalban and Henry Da Silva are stand-outs here. Their performances aren’t showy in any way. They are just damn good. James Mitchell as Juan Garcia deserves a mention, too, as the migrant worker Rodríguez befriends at the beginning of the film.
This movie is as relevant today as it was back in the 1940s. One only has to read the above mentioned book or watch the news to see that human smuggling is still going on today. So, if you’re looking for a noir that offers a little something different, please check this film out. Border Incident is available for streaming on FilmStruck and Amazon. It’s also available on DVD.