BORDER INCIDENT came out seven decades ago, yet apart from a few sappy minutes at the opening and finish, this harsh, wrenching noir thriller from 1949 holds up, both as a grim exercise in cinematic craft and—tragically—as a still-timely lament on an accelerated economic diaspora that’s claimed countless victims.
Ruthless human traffickers smuggle desperate ‘braceros‘ across the Mexico-US border for hopeful work and decent wages in the abundant farmland of the valleys in California. If near-slavery conditions aren’t enough, robbery and murder en-route plague the innocent, defenseless laborers. Two undercover agents, ‘Pablo Rodriguez’, from Mexico’s Federal Judicial Police (Ricardo Montalban) and ‘Jack Bearnes’, from the US Federal Immigration Service (George Murphy) infiltrate a vicious, mutually beneficial, cross-border operation that thinks as little of multiple-murders as they do a bushel of lettuce.
Written by John C. Higgins, expertly directed by Anthony Mann, working the fourth of a sextet Mann paired on with cinematographer John Alton, the 94-minutes are notably unsparing when it comes to the brutality visited on migrants—from both sides of the border—including one of the most unsettling—and effectively staged—murder scenes of its era—courtesy of the churning blades of a soil tiller.
Montalban, in a rare lead, is excellent, and Murphy has maybe his best role. They’d both nicked neat parts in the same year’s big WW2 hit Battleground: here, instead of dealing with Nazis in Belgium, they face down a formidable array of believably real bad-guys from both sides of our own sunny border. Fronting the mean: Howard da Silva (top-rate), Charles McGraw, Arnold Moss, Alfonso Bedoya, Arthur Hunnicutt and Jack Lambert. Dramatic camera work from Alton makes great use of tight close-ups of the principals, and works atmospheric playing of shadow & light to frame and stress their problems and plight.
With James Mitchell, John Ridgely, Sig Ruman, Jose Torvay, Fred Graham. It lagged into 149th place for the year, earnings of $908,000 not enough to cover a $749,000 outlay. A rough customer at 94 minutes, well worth looking up.