Border Incident (1949): Mann and Alton Enhanced Docu-Drama Noir

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A voice of God with a certain newsreel ethos sets the scene. California’s Imperial Valley. An area renowned for its robust agricultural industry. The Bracero Program, that brilliant reflection of U.S.-Mexican relations during the war years and beyond. However, if this scenario sounds too simplistic and squeaky clean, it soon gets slightly more intriguing in consideration of the border.

You have illegals jumping the fence to get into the U.S. and numerous egregious perpetrators of human suffering and injustice looking to take advantage of the situation by any means possible. Indigenous Bandidos are looking to murder and pillage a la The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and their savagery terrorizes the countryside. Then, there is the clandestine trafficking of labor, another real-world problem portrayed in cinematic terms.

Because Border Incident is pronounced a composite case of real life and hard facts. Like T-Men before it, the introduction leaves me rather skeptical. It does feel like reality is still being sculpted, not only for the movies but in a manner that the heroes and villains can become more easily definable.

Instead of a trail of counterfeit bills, it’s all about finding out the route of illegal transportation into the country. But regardless of my qualms, it’s extraordinary for Ricardo Montalban to get such a hefty and prominent part in a picture. There’s no question he’s the standout, at least as far as the heroes are concerned, playing a brave and charismatic Mexican agent, Pablo Rodriguez, who is tasked with uncovering the smuggling at its source. His American counterpart is American Jack Bearnes (George Murphy) who is brave but hardly as compelling.

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There are, however, plenty of villains to fawn over as with any respectable noir. Charles McGraw is an ornery enforcer who takes no flack and pushes the impoverished Mexicans around like chattel. Being wary of the border patrol in Indio, he’s not above dumping their cargo in the Salton Sea if they have to. It’s a chilling illustration of his disreputable nature.

Jack Lambert is always game as a sneering heavy and Howard Da Silva also has a mug made for villainy. However, in this case, he’s actually a big deal — the untouchable mastermind of this entire operation — it’s the men below him who get their hands dirty.

While Rodriguez is embroiled right in the pit of the harrowing operation, befriending a sympathetic countryman named Juan Garcia (James Mitchell), it is the American agent who works from the top down; he gets an alias as a criminal on the lamb and makes contact with the big man. They look to set up a mutually beneficial business transaction, a load of visas for heaps of cash.

If the narrative structure leaves something to be desired, there’s nevertheless an impeccable framework for Mann to implement his unsentimental brand of filmmaking. In a textbook example, there’s a moment where Lamber’s fingers get crammed in a truck window — as the braceros try to flee — only to get pushed off the speeding vehicle and potentially hurtled to his death. The uncompromising imagery is only to be surpassed when a wounded border agent is squashed to smithereens by a tractor, literally dwarfing the frame. It’s this sense of suffocation even in wide open spaces.

The glorious tight angled close-ups are only one facet to the film, accentuating this sense of constraint just as the extraordinary tones of John Alton, in essence, cloak the space in a noose of supreme darkness. For a film about men trying to flee authorities crossing cultural borders, there’s hardly a better visual method of conveyance possible.

Raw Deal is still the gold standard of Anthony Mann film noir with T-Men and then Border Incident falling a rung below. Mostly because the mechanism created for the plot feel flat, and yet everything Mann and Alton touch really is dynamite, with the most gorgeous tones, equally stylistically dynamic. It’s a killer one-two punch and all business as usual for director and cinematographer.

On this front, as a merely technical and formalistic endeavor, Border Incident is superb and a darn good docu-noir. In the closing moments, Montalban gets swallowed up by quicksand, fighting for his life against adversaries, and fistfights and gunshots abound on all sides. These lightning rods of drama are appreciated.

Unfortunately, it keeps the same framework that now in present days looks more propagandistic and heavy-handed then authentic storytelling. We find ourselves with a certain rhetoric about living under the protection of two great republics and the bounty of God Almighty.

Of course, there’s no mention of the Zoot Suit Riots and the perpetration of racial violence, because that was too close to home and does not fit into a handy framework for a public service announcement storyline such as this. Instead of chalking all problems up to cold, capitalistic men in suits with greedy underlings, we must look at a social system that breeds bigotry as much as it does inequality. Admittedly, I am not one with the right answers but nonetheless, I am curious to know how we move forward from a film like this.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Armored Car Robbery (1950): Wrigley Field L.A. Noir

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Armored Car Robbery instantly had my rapt attention in part because of its location shooting and due to one place in particular. We start out at L.A. City Hall and soon a shooting and a robbery are being called in from nearby Wrigley Field, which sends Lt. Cordell (Charles McGraw) and his partner out to respond.

It proves to be a false alarm but the setting alone might throw some contemporary audiences for a loop. After all, Wrigley Field is synonymous with the ivy-laden bricks of Chicago, not Los Angeles.

Except L.A. enthusiasts might know that the area once held a Wrigley Field of its own, formerly the home of the original Los Angeles Angels expansion team in 1961. It also served as the backdrop in many classics including Meet John Doe and Pride of the Yankees. Added to that list is Armored Car Robbery, although it only uses a facade of the stadium, which could just have easily been a studio set.

Aside from always being fascinated by time capsule moments — Wrigley Field was all but demolished in 1963 — I had always heard talk of my Grandma growing up down the street in Los Angeles. She was born in L.A. County and her family ran a grocery store in the area. I don’t have much of a picture of that world and so even a brief image like the one provided here gives me a glimpse into yesteryear. But I digress.

Richard Fleischer’s heist noir is an obvious precursor to The Killing for its stadium locale and the ever necessary complications that begin to present themselves in due time. What good is a heist if it doesn’t go completely haywire?

Because of its limited time, Armored Car Robbery spends minutes on the preparations and the actual execution of the job. But the trick is, it’s all so efficient, we are never allowed time to get bored by the usual rhythms. Still, all the information is there for us to be brought into the crime.

Generally known as defense attorney Hamilton Burger on Perry Mason,  William Talman gives a far more insidious turn as a meticulous criminal obsessive about keeping a low profile and tying up every loose end so he can pull off the perfect crime. What’s more, he’s secretly got a bite on his accomplice’s girl, a heartlessly opportunistic blonde bombshell (Adele Jergens).

By night she’s got the entire male populous ogling. By day, she’s looking pretty, hanging around the bar, and getting miffed with her husband (Douglas Fowley), who can’t seem to make any dough. Hence her convenient extramarital operations. Dave Purvis is the man for her, taking charge of two other thugs as they set their sights on $200,000 of cold hard cash.

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But there’s always a slip-up. There can hardly be a heist genre without the wrench that causes everything to hurtle out of control. As it turns out, Lt. Cordell (Charles McGraw) and his partner are on the beat, responding to the subsequent distress call at Wrigley immediately. The culprits aren’t expecting it, and the ensuing shootout leaves one of the officer’s dead in the line of duty and one of the gangsters badly injured. Soon the alarm has been raised with roadblocks set out everywhere and the police force on high alert for the four fugitives.

For the rest of the film, Cordell must live with this galling injustice, stewing day and night in his own distraughtness and copious amounts of lukewarm coffee. First, jaded by the untimely murder of his partner and then saddled with a wet-behind-the-ears replacement (Don McGuire). Although the new recruit nevertheless proves to have a certain amount of gumption when it counts.

The film employs a low-budget airport terminal ending — one of the few times it lets slip its meager means — but the film goes for the narrative jugular. We see precursors to the likes of The Big Combo, The Killing, and even Bullitt. On multiple occasions, it’s not at all squeamish about letting the bullets fly and the death toll rises as a result. And it’s this disregard for the sanctity of life that gives the narrative real heft. No one is protected and there we have grounds for a thrilling drama.

These kinds of stories are awesome pulp classics with a stripped-down punchiness that’s instantly gratifying. RKO was such a wonderful studio in this regard for giving us such raw delights. They don’t make them like this anymore.  We waste too much time.

While not completely related, one should note RKO is the only of the major classic studios that completely folded. Those were the good old days. But all good things must come to an end. Wrigley got demolished. Actors die. Studios close down. That’s why cinematic memorials are often so important. They allow us to journey back into the past.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Killers (1946)

Thekillers2It’s been said that Robert Siodmak’s The Killers was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite adaptation of one of his works which was, in this case, a short story. As a film-noir, it works on numerous levels from the cinematography, to the score, to the young stars, to the ingenious narrative. Some credit, of course, can go to Hemingway for the concept, but a lot of the creative success must be given to the likes of Siodmak, John Huston and a host of others.

The film opens in an instant with two lurking gunmen entering a diner in a small New Jersey town called Brentwood. Their target is a washed up boxer called “The Swede” and we do not know why, but after terrorizing a few locals, they riddle him with bullet holes and that’s the end of it. It’s an intense sequence because the thugs (William Conrad and Charles McGraw)  are antagonistic and Miklos Rozsa’s score is nearly relentlessness.

The story could have ended there if it wasn’t for an insurance investigator named Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), who takes an interest in the dead man so he can find his beneficiary. In the present, he begins to piece together little fragments of the boxer’s past slowly but surely.

It starts out with Nick Adams who witnessed the thugs and worked with The Swede when a mysterious man came by the filing station. Soon after Ole Andreson stopped coming in to work and a while later he was dead. That’s all Nick knows, and it does not give Reardon much to go on.

Next, he tracks down The Swede’s beneficiary who turns out to be a kindly hotel maid. The connection seems slim, but it turns out that she kept him from committing suicide after a tough evening where he tore his flat apart. It’s still not much to go on, but Reardon thanks her and moves on with his investigation, still intrigued.

Then he goes to Philadelphia and gets his biggest puzzle piece from a policeman named Lubinsky, who used to run with the Swede as kids and probably knew him the best of anyone. He and his wife explain to Reardon how Pete Llund, as he was known, lost his final bout and was forced to move on with his life. About that time he met Kitty Collins for the first time and was infatuated for good.

Charleston is next the old stooge who spent a good many years locked up in a cell with the Swede. Reardon comes upon him at the funeral and from the old convict, he learns about a bank job that the washed up boxer got involved in. The other partners were Blinky, Dum Dum, and Big Jim. They are Reardon’s next points of interest.

Blinky is near death and recounts the robbery. Dum Dum crosses path with Reardon and shares about the aftermath of the job which went sour. Next, comes Big Jim whose tight-lipped about the past. Last but not least is Kitty, who is fearful that Reardon knows something and can actually blackmail her. That’s when everything begins to line up and heat up. After being absent for so long, the Killers are back in the picture and Rozsa’s score picks up again threatening the status quo of the film. They put us on edge again and for good reason. But the real focal point of the ending is Kitty.

Obviously, Citizen Kane has so many layers of interest, but it shares a similar narrative arc to The Killers where the main character is killed and his story gets pieced together thanks to flashbacks that are furnished from the present. Except, in many ways, the story of The Swede intrigues me more as a character. Charles Foster Kane is a magnate with an impressive if not tragic life.

Swede’s life is probably just as tragic except it was more humble and chock full of more crime. He was small time and he even failed in love when his friend Lubinsky got the girl of his dreams. It’s an interesting life too that ended unnaturally with gunshots rather than Kane who died as an old man. The Swede was cut short in a tragic sort of way and I think that’s part of what intrigues Reardon. It’s more than a job, but a mysterious story of a man’s life that the audience also gets taken along for. As far as storytelling goes, it’s great and it really works to flesh out these characters.

Ultimately, Reardon feels like the main character of sorts, but such an aura is built around The Swede and Kitty that it is understandable that this film made stars out of Lancaster and Gardner. They are certainly memorable partially because we hardly ever seen them in the present (except for Kitty at the end). Their whole persona is built off of what others say and there’s something interesting about that. There’s the fatalistic and sullen Swede which turned out be a perfect debut for Burt Lancaster. Ava Gardner has the soft seductive whisper of lethal poison all wrapped up in a beautiful body and it leaves a major impression.

Above all else, The Killers is a prime example of film noir blending German Expressionism from Siodmak’s native Germany with more documentary style sequences that take inspiration from post-war neo-realism. The opening sequence especially drips with noir sensibilities that, at its most dramatic, looms with shadows from the exterior of the diner to the low-key lighting of the Swede’s bedroom. For a while, it’s even difficult to know that’s Burt Lancaster reclined on the bed because his whole body is fully encased as he speaks. It’s only when he gets up into the light that we finally are introduced before he gets gunned down a few minutes later. It’s great staging and the atmosphere remains for a great deal of the film from the prison cell to Big Jim’s mansion. Each place is contrasted with the present or other locales like Reardon’s office which are more natural in lighting. It doesn’t get much better than that.

4.5/5 Stars