Border Incident was one of four films Mann made with writer John C. Higgins and cinematographer John Alton (Mann also worked with Higgins without Alton, and with Alton without Higgins). The earlier ones were produced by Eagle-Lion but this time the big, and glamorous, MGM bought both the script and Mann from Eagle-Lion. But it is not a film of luxury but one that stays close to the dirt, capturing the texture of barbed wire and the barren soil, and it is shot on locations on both sides of the border. It begins like a documentary, with a voice-over describing the area's irrigation system, the landscape and the agriculture economy, and how the farms in California depend on Mexican day wagers, or braceros. (In 1942 the United States and Mexico signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement which organised and legalised this system, partly because of a lack of domestic manpower after World War 2 broke out. The agreement lasted in various forms until 1964.) But while some come legally, other are smuggled across the border and it is this the film is focused on. The film emphasises that this is based on true stories, case-files from the Department of Justice, and that it is important that the people are told about this. (The trailer for the film calls it "The angry truth!")
The main character is Pablo Rodriguez, a Mexican policeman played by Ricardo Montalbán, who pretends to be a bracero in order to be smuggled across and this way expose one of these networks. Sig Ruman plays the German headman of the smugglers on the Mexican side and Howard Da Silva plays Owen Parkson, the boss for the whole outfit, with Charles McGraw playing his enforcer. They are all excellent in their parts but Da Silva is the one that stands out. He radiates understated menace.
There are a few scenes showing discussions between Mexican and US officials that come across as stiff and speechifying, advocating the importance for cooperation and friendship between the two "great republics", and however important the message might be these scenes almost seem to belong to another film. But the rest of the film is masterful, especially the cinematography, the silences and the constant tension. The framing and compositions are all quintessentially Mann, and the lighting quintessentially Alton. There is probably not a single shot in Border Incident that could not be taken out and exhibited at MoMA or Tate Modern. There is a shot in the beginning of lines of Mexican men with their faces pressed against barbed wire that has such force and desperation it becomes unforgettable. There are also many small scenes that deepens the characters, whether through acts of friendship or acts of violence. And the tension comes from the fact that life has so little value and death comes to almost all characters sooner or later. In one scene, on a truck filled with Mexicans being taken over the border, an old man dies, struggling for breath, and is quickly thrown on the ground and left behind. This is no country for either young or old.
Today, even though more people are moving from the United States to Mexico than the other way around, poor workers are still try to get across. The stories told in Border Incident are not just a thing of the past.
In an earlier post I said that Mann should be regarded as one of the best filmmakers of all time, in the same league as Ford, Hitchcock, Hawks, Renoir, Kurosawa, Bergman and so on. Unfortunately Mann is not as well-known and well-researched as most of his peers but there has been some good writing about him. There are two important books, one by Jeanine Basinger called Anthony Mann, published in a "new and expanded edition" in 2007, and one by Max Alvarez called The Crime Films of Anthony Mann, published in 2013. In Horizons West (2nd edition 2007), Jim Kitses has a good chapter on Mann. For articles and essays here are some links and quotes:
Robin Wood wrote an article in CineAction #46, 1998, primarily about Man of the West (1958), but if you cannot get hold of a copy there is another piece primarily about The Furies (1950) here at Mubi.
Mann’s westerns, on the other hand, show little interest in history or in mythology; they are grounded in a fallen world of existential struggle in which the villains often become the heroes’ dark shadows. Typically, when he shoots down his enemy, the Mann hero experiences not triumph but exhaustion, almost prostration, as if he had forfeited a part of himself, his manhood.Imogen Sara Smith wrote about Man of the West as a guest-writer at Shadowlands.
In The Furies (1950) and The Man from Laramie (1955), the Lear figures are cattle barons who have usurped huge territories over which their children fight for control. In Man of the West the decaying monument is instead the leader of a gang of bandits. While the plot elements of Mann’s last western owe less to Lear than those of the two earlier films, Man of the West captures best the overwhelming flavor of waste and ruin, of senseless destruction (Kurosawa rightly titled his Lear film Ran, “chaos”), and of irrevocable loss that suffuse the play.Nick Pinkerton wrote about Mann's career for The Village Voice in 2010, to be found here.
Breaking down a flanking maneuver during the West‘s climactic ghost-town gunfight, Mann delineates space clearly through camera placement and cutting, an art as common today as fine lacemaking. In a Mann film, you understand who’s shooting, from where, the bullet’s path, where the ricochet goes—and the results. A new widower’s cry lingers after this gunfight—a reckoning moment like the quick-cut of the body dropping at the end of Winchester ’73, as the movie’s fever breaks. Even the “justified” violence of his ostensible heroes is a queasy triumph. His protagonists, he said, ended up not “exalted,” but “exhausted.”
In print only there is Paul Willemen's article "Anthony Mann: Looking at the Male" in Framework #14, 1980. It has also been re-published in The Western Reader (1998), which also has a fine interview with Mann. And finally, Jacques Rancière's essay "Some Things to Do: The Poetics of Anthony Mann" which is to be found in the collection Film Fables, published in English in 2006. He will get the final word:
Before being a moralist or a craftsman, Mann is an artist, that is, he is first and foremost what Proust understood by an artist: a polite man who doesn't leave price tags on the gifts he gives.