Anthony Mann: BORDER INCIDENT (1949)
Deep in the throes of World War II, it seems the United States’ own migrant workers were in short supply, so the government initiated The Bracero Program on August 4, 1942, enabling poor Mexican laborers to cross the border for a short period, with the U.S. intent on sending them back through the aid of incentives in Mexican bank accounts rather than legally allowing them to become citizens. Of course, some scheming individuals discovered loopholes, figured ways to smuggle Mexicans inside the U.S. and paid them less than the government was prepared to. This practice oftentimes led to several murders of the migrant workers following the theft of whatever the greedy entrepeneurs could steal back.
BORDER INCIDENT is the tale of two law enforcement agents – Jack Bearnes (George Murphy, of William A. Wellman’s BATTLEGROUND) of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization department, and Pablo Rodriguez (a baby-faced Ricardo Montalban, fresh off a series of MGM musicals in what was his first dramatic performance) of the Mexican equivalent of the F.B.I. Their job is to infiltrate the shadowy organizations in order to find out just how these crooked entrepreneurs and dishonest farmers operate, Rodriguez posing as a disgraced Bracero not content on waiting any longer for the legal channels to allow him to enter the United States, and Bearnes as a common felon who has stolen more than four-hundred blank immigration slips (and thus, enticing the villains with something they desperately want and need). The tough-guy authority of Bearnes and Rodriguez’s subtle understanding of his people's plight make for a clash of engaging personalities, though a friendship is established by a brief throwaway line of another case the two worked on in Texas (and in a sly comment for a film that doesn’t have any smoldering females to speak of, both detectives are quick to agree on the attractiveness of a female caught up in that previous case; if this film can’t showcase any striking women, at least it can speak of beauties almost too gorgeous to be seen).
Rodriguez, almost immediately after going undercover, befriends a comparable migrant case in Juan Garcia (James Mitchell), a six-week veteran of the dehumanizing process of standing in line awaiting an affirmative answer from the people who decide on which “Braceros” are allowed access to the United States. Married with children, Juan Garcia has a lot more to lose should he be taken advantage of -- not to mention the added insult of his criminal superiors taking overpriced deductions for both food and shelter. Still, he decides to cross with Rodriguez anyway.
After tracking down some venal-minded citizens who are willing to set up their transport, Mann presents us with one of the cleverest scenes in the picture, as a woman dressed in the style of a palm reader inspects Rodriguez’s hands. In an all-too-quick assessment, she suspects that he is lying by the fact that no calluses appear on the skin of his supposedly migrant worker hands. Rodriguez gets the okay anyway, after quick conniving and some fierce deliberation by the powers-that-be, but such deceitful appearances and table-turnings aren't common in the film, and it makes for a unique bit of overturning a stereotype.
Rodriguez and Juan Garcia then make a precarious entrance into U.S. territory on the back of a flatbed truck, hidden underneath a layer of hay, and driven to the contemplation of their respective futures -- Rodriguez worrying about his case, and Juan Garcia, his family --brought on by the death of an elderly member of their burrowed-in crew.
Bearnes takes a wiseacre approach to his newfound identity, allowing the big daddy of the syndicate, Owen Parkson (Howard Da Silva), to make his presence, but to never let him have the upper hand; his playful snatching away of the dart gun from Parkson letting the latter know that Bearnes is not one to be openly obsequious, and he can more than stand his ground. Da Silva’s bulbous appearance does wonders for his living-off-the-land persona here, a man getting rich off the tragic exploitation of others. He has a number of minions answering to him, namely Zopilate (Arnold Moss) and Chuchillo (Alfonso Bedoya, his credit in the trailer reading “Remember Him From THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE?”), two slicksters who do all of the man’s dirty work.
Bearnes’ denouement is positively astonishing, especially when considering the time in which this was made: in another reverberation of T-MEN, Rodriguez is forced to confront the demise of his assigned partner as a tractor driven by Da Silva’s underlings virtually obliterate his body while he barks out for mercy. Mann builds the intensity here by depicting Bearnes crawling ever so closely to the frame, juxtaposed with high-angled shots of the rudders that will seal his fate. There is a baroque corrosiveness in this explicit death that almost foreshadows a similar white-nuclear heat seen in Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY.