Following is a special guest post by Theresa Brown. You can follow Theresa on Facebook here.
What better way for me to get my feet wet, than to dive head-first into this latest blogathon: “Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage” hosted by Movie Star Makeover and Once Upon a Screen. Thank you Aurora for extending your open invitation to write about classic films on your blog.
There are good guys and there are bad guys. And then, there are these guys. Vultures. BORDER INCIDENT is peopled with the good, the bad and the brutally ugly in this hard-hitting drama. My jaw dropped several times during this movie and my stomach literally churned during the last half-hour. The tension nearly did me in. This is 1949? It’s an Anthony Mann film, and he pulls…no…punches.
Ricardo Montalban is Captain Pablo Rodriguez of the Policia Judiciales Federales, and he is heading this operation. His plan is to go undercover as a migrant worker to investigate the murders of Mexican migrant workers who smuggle themselves into the United States. Montalban is strong, authoritative, handsome. (Yes, handsome is a pre-requisite for a heroic leading man, and he is.) Backing him up is Inspector Jack Bearnes of Immigration – played by song and dance man George Murphy – very believable as the efficient ‘G’ man and friend to Montalban. I sort of thought this was Murphy’s Dick Powell moment; remember how Powell’s screen persona changed in Edward Dmytryk’s MURDER, MY SWEET (1944). Murphy’s more hard-boiled than I’ve ever seen him.
As Captain Pablo Rodriguez Ricardo Montalban makes his case.
The Mexican and American governments work hand in hand on this issue. The Mexican government is not playing a subservient role in this and its concerns are expressed strongly by Col. Alvarado (Martin Garralaga) head of the Mexican side of things. No one country shoulders all the blame. Both countries admit culpability in the illegal actions of its citizens. But the murders must not continue. So, under cover goes Montalban.
Montalban befriends migrant worker Juan Garcia (James Mitchell) a good church-going man who tries to do the right thing and legally wait his turn for work. But after six weeks of nothing, his family can no longer financially afford to wait. Under the table, he pays to be smuggled into the States. And the horror begins. The film is the migrant workers’ story of their struggle in difficult circumstances. And BORDER INCIDENT shows them in a sympathetic light. There’s a sad scene where an old man dies in the back of the smugglers’ truck. His body is put out in the desert and they leave him. The film takes its time to show a touching moment where the men say a prayer in Spanish for the dead man as the truck drives off. All this silently affects Montalban.
James Mitchell as Juan Garcia and Teresa Celli as Maria
This brings us to the lower echelon of bottom feeders; Mexicans who turn on their own people for profit. These banditos do the dirtiest work. They jump the migrant workers, strip them of valued possessions, kill and bury them in quicksand. These three Mesquites are vultures who pick bones dry.
There is Pocoloco, silently played by José Torvay. Cuchillo the strong-arm guy of the trio, is done by the deliciously dastardly Alfonso Bedoya of “we-don’t-need-no-steenking-badges” fame. He has no qualms about using his machete. The brains of this group is Zopilote (Arnold Moss) who’ll stab you in the back as soon as look at you, with those unforgettable eyes. They are heartless and cut side deals and work with Hugo (played by Sig Rumann. Yeah, that Sig Rumann.) And these three answer to the masterminds of this entire operation.
Alfonso Bedoya and Arnold Moss is double trouble – Bedoya gleefully gazes at a gun lighter – Zopilote takes his marching orders from Hugo (Rumann)
The movie features many movie heavies (and one, absolutely ubiquitous character actor.) But here’s a word to the wise: if you are looking up the barrel of a gun that’s being held by Charles McGraw, you are a goner. Period. Gravelly-voiced and granite hard, he would give Charles Bronson pause. The migrant workers won’t catch a break from him. He and his merry band of men (Arthur Hunnicutt and Jack Lambert) keep the migrants in line. McGraw and Rumann are the suppliers and transporters of this human cargo. These “wets” as they’re called, are not to rise above their “station.” Racism is the cherry on top and par for the course.
Charles McGraw, your worst nightmare.
Charles McGraw gives James Mitchell a dressing down – Mastermind Howard DaSilva, nothing personal, it’s just business
“Listen, monkey. You come in here like a crook, breaking our laws and expect to be treated like one of us? Get out!”
Concentric rings of Hell swirl around the migrant workers as the hierarchy of bad guys is revealed. At the top of the food chain pulling the strings, smoothly and silkily giving out orders, moving the human chess pieces of henchman and migrant workers alike, is good ol’ bad guy Howard DaSilva. He doesn’t break a sweat over a thing; he just picks up the phone, and target practices with his air gun. He’s the bad guy who doesn’t get his hands dirty. The migrant workers are merely “merchandise” to him.
The film unfolds documentary style with voice-overs, and breaks into segments for each man’s p.o.v.. We see Montalban and Murphy think fast on their feet to stay one step ahead of these pretty savvy bad guys when they’re caught dead to rights.
Caught, questioned and man-handled for answers.
Their hands are tied in making any moves against the smugglers since they’re out in the trenches alone. In fact, they can not even help each other. Spending time with the migrants, they become more than a means to bust a case wide open for Montalban. He’s prayed with them, guides them. I can’t say he’s taking a position for or against smuggling but he guides them nonetheless. I liked this very small moment where Montalban is given gloves by Pablo to protect his hands out in the field. Pablo has no idea Montalban is a federal agent. He just wants to help his new friend. It was a small thing for Pablo to do, and I liked Montalban’s quiet and subtle reaction to the kindness.
“We’re here against the law, so the law can’t help us,” explains Montalban.
This is a tough film, but that’s to be expected directed by Anthony Mann (THE GREAT FLAMARION (1945), T-MEN (1947), RAW DEAL (1948), REIGN OF TERROR (1949).) He makes tough thrillers and this one’s no different. He uses his frequent right-hand man cinematographer John Alton to paint with (or without) light; scenes glisten beautifully in the darkness. Filmed on location mostly at night, bad things happen at night. Adding to the foreboding is André Previn‘s music. It subtly underscores danger without telegraph-ing it. Even quicksand has its own theme.
I’ll let all the plotlines unfold for you so you can experience the roller coaster ride for yourself. No doubt immigration is a hot button issue today. No matter which side of the fence you fall on, BORDER INCIDENT puts a human face on it all. It’s good to see Montalban in this role. It’s very early in his Hollywood career. Playing the Captain gives him a character with a legal power and authority over people that playing a bullfighter or polo playing playboy does not. I know Montalban fought his whole career NOT to be typecast, accent notwithstanding. There is something to be said when a person of appropriate ethnicity is allowed to portray that ethnicity. But that’s only half the battle. The actor has to bring the goods: Talent. And Montalban has it. When not saddled with the mantle of “Latin Lover” or swimming with Esther Williams (though nice work if you can get it) he’s up to the task of just…being. There’s nothing inherent in his ethnicity that would preclude him from portraying any profession. That’s been Hollywood’s mistake with the Hispanic actor and every other ethnicity. Think of Paul Muni in BORDERTOWN (1935), THE GOOD EARTH (1937), JUAREZ (1939) or SCARFACE (1932). Were there any other actors for those roles? And if I really get down to brass tacks, how harder still was it for the Afro-Latino actor to get roles and be accepted by Hollywood and fellow-Hispanics actors? Is the great Juano Hernandez the exception or the rule? I muse at the fantasy of “what if…” What if Ricardo Montalban appeared in Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) instead of Charlton Heston. Hmm, I think Janet Leigh could go for that very easily. Ladies?
This post is Theresa’s entry to the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon. hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Movie Star Makeover. Be sure to visit both host sites on October 11 and 12 to read about many of the great Hispanic-themed films and other Hispanic stars who’ve shined in Hollywood.