Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Darkness #11: Crossing Over (Opening Scene from Border Incident)

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This is the official topic for Daily Dose #11 from Anthony Mann's 1949 film, Border Incident, with cinematography by John Alton. This Dose will be delivered Wednesday morning, June 17. Let the discussion begin! 

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It was harder for me to see the influence of Film Noir in this opening sequence than the others.  The clip seems like a news reel--it's so matter of fact. The connection I make is that Film Noir honestly portrays the human condition and the inner lives of human beings, particularly in their darker moments. The opening sequence begins to piont us toward the dark undercurrents under the vast, sunny industrial agricultural empire.

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The voice over narration is used to impart information to the audience about a situation many may not have been familiar with at the time, if they did not live in the southwest.  It is the set-up for the film.  I did not get the "feeling" of film noir, but I have yet to see the movie. 

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The clip is giving is so much info for us the viewer, this is farm land. And many people that help the US are Mexican's

 

there are many kinds of Mexican's that come over the US 

 

to work legal

to work illegal try to go back and get robbed.

 

When they talk about farming and the Mexican's that will help farm the music is happy music. When they talk about the Illegal Mexican's the music gets dark and low.

 

It some what reminds me of the opening to 1982's Scarface. 

 

 

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That clip took us through four distinct worlds, but in a way, went full circle.

 

  • The opening titles showed vast panoramic shots of the American West - hills, crevices, desert stretches - with no admission of civilization (no people, no cars...just wilderness). But the music told us "something bad is happening here".
  • The aerial shots of the farmland showed us organization and civilization - rectangular plots, trees planted in almost impossible symmetry, the canal as a straight line (in the sand, if you will) dividing Mexico and the US, but we're seeing and hearing about a plentiful and booming economy.
  • Cut to the Mexicans behind a double barbed wire fence, looking more like prisoners than cooperative farm workers. They are jammed in a pack, looks of desperation on their faces, but the narrator is telling us these people are law abiding people working through an established system. Even so, the wealthy landowners leveraging cheap labor is implied.
  • Then finally we circle back to the supposed criminals, running across the barren stretch of land to cross back over to Mexico, although we are told they are not safe there (apparently they were safe when they were working on the farmland, though?). The ominous signs forbidding trespass on either side reinforces the narration; these people are the issue.

So when we come full circle, we see the way things are supposed to be (wilderness as wilderness, farmland and border as organization and rules to follow) but then are shown those that live in the middle of those two worlds. I don't think the narration or the cinematography would have worked as well alone - the combination allows the subliminal conclusion.

 

Visually, I wouldn't say this is an obvious "noir" statement on its own, but the setup tells us "things are not what they seem". I haven't seen this film in ages, so I'll be interested to see it with our focus in mind. Normally I'm not crazy about narration, The Killing being a notable exception.

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From the moment you hear the music you have the feeling this is a documentary.  The music then the narration come across like the travelogue’s of James A. Fitzpatrick (Land of the Quintuplets, (1942) http://www.tcm.com/watchtcm/movies/400104/Land-Of-The-Quintuplets/) Time Marches On of Louis de Rochemont (who made many docudramas like Lost Boundries), or the many “true police” shorts done by the studios.  This is something people of the time would have been very familiar with.  The double feature, cartoon and shorts, usually documentary and newsreels.

 

The music and narration are those of a documentary.  The images follow along just as they would in a documentary, showing the real world of the baceros.  Though they use camera angles to make it more interesting.  The rectangular design of the great canal and the road following along it, are diagonal, as are the fields, crops, rows of newly plowed land.

 

Then we get to the horizontal fence that divides the U.S. from Mexico, and the many people behind it, including Ricardo Montalban, who are the legal workers following what they should.  Now the narration moves us out from a documentary to the intro to the crime aspect, the ones who jump the fence and break the law, and the diagonal barbed wire fence in that section.

 

This documentary style will open the noir films to any place to rural society, just as we see in the opening of The Killers.  No longer is crime just for the cities, it is now in the countryside, nowhere is safe.  This will give us movies and T.V. series like Naked City.  That tell supposedly true stories and lead to one of the greatest docudramas, In Cold Blood.

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The opening evokes the documentary style common to the day. I wouldn't have noticed the diagonality unless you had brought it to my attention. This must have been shot from an airplane, because there were no steady cams to smooth a helicopter's shot. What seems like casual aerial photography must have been carefully planned to get the diagonality of the shots to match when edited together.

I wonder how much this film influenced Harvest of Shame: Edward R. murrow's last documentary for CBS shows on thanksgiving of 1960?

www.imdb.com/title/tt0322505/

[...]

Edited by TCMModerator1
Removed link to full video

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The irony is that - and the punks at HUAC were oblivious - Mann and Alton subvert in their imagery in key sequences of the film the propaganda that "illegals" are the problem. U.S. agribusiness exploitation of impoverished Latinos was - and still is - the real story. The climactic tractor scene is explicit in its condemnation, and Alton's shooting of the border stakeout sequence is pure poetry. Film noir was the closest Hollywood ever got to subversion.

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-- What mood or atmosphere—through the visual design and the voiceover narration—is being established in this realistic documentary sequence?

 

The mood that is set up is serious, its documentary/newsreel style invokes a true story or composite story that rings true. It shows the documented aliens waiting patiently for entry at the chain-link fence, then as already mentioned goes noir as the daylight is replaced by night and the voice over narration discusses the illegal border crossings and their consequences.

 

 

-- What do you think documentary realism adds to the evolution and increased range of the film noir style?

 

They start to inform the public of various social issues, and criminal enterprises, or criminal injustices, its a way of broadening the range of stories to include stories with "messages" or even propaganda.

 

 

-- In what ways can the opening of Border Incident be considered an important contribution to the film noir style?

 

Again it would be very important if it was the first Film Noir to use this voice over public service type beginning but without chronological data it is hard to say

 

 

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The setup was purely informational to bring the viewer into the enormity of the agricultural operation that will be the backdrop of the drama played out. The camera action impresses upon us the breadth of the land involved and then focuses on showing the viewer braceros who will be the players in the drama that will ensue. Documentary style was perfect to achieve that objective. The announcer's voice had a nasal quality typical of ehat one heard in the narration of newsreels at that time. All this prepares us to accept "the facts" of the subject (the macro) before using other methods to seat us in the particular story with all its issues (the micro).

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This is definitely not a film I would normally consider as "noir", based on this clip. The opening sequence consists of wonderful shots of nature from the air, something that can be assigned more to the documentary style of National Geographics for instance, and not an "art film". Even the voice over sounds more like a voice from propaganda films, or even announcing some sensation or a disaster, than a narrative of a tortured, troublesome soul...

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The documentary style adds a heightened sense of realism, and therefore a heightened sense of importance to the story about to be told. The classic juxtaposing of good and bad is set out by the director through the voiceover, the visuals, and the music.

 

The "goodness" of the daytime scenario, when the legal braceros cross the border, is demonstrated with shots of abundant, sunny, and orderly fields, along with cheery music. Even the workers are controlled and contained, waiting calmly behind 2 wire fences. But when the darkness comes, when the illegal workers cross, we see only barren fields, a few faceless men running randomly, and an ominous sky matched by the music.

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Prior to this course, I wouldn't have spotted this as a film noir. I like how much I'm learning!

 

As I watched the opening scene, it reminded me of how a typical film noir pans the city landscape. In this film, the mountains are the skyscrapers and the rows of fields are the residential streets laid out in linear form.

 

As someone else mentioned, the braceros waiting to get in to the US looked like prisoners, and in a way reminded me of the postwar concentration camp liberation films.

 

How ironic is it to compare the fertile fields of those days with the drought CA is currently experiencing?

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If it wasn't for the near-fatalistic music accompanying the opening credit sequence (close to what you'd hear in a horror-suspense film), I would have  thought I'd walked into the wrong theater. The music is incongruous to the docu-visual filmic start which follows; but it is reminding me I'm in for a Noir experience  :)

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I appreciate the Curator's note about the use in the intro to Border Incident of diagonal versus horizontal framing! I suspect I would not have paid any attention to this if it had not been pointed out to me. I also like the background information about how Dore Schary turned MGM toward more realistic films.

 

Oddly, the impact of horizontal versus diagonal framing came up in a home improvement show I watched last night (Flip Flop on HGTV). In that episode, the investors discussed whether to install patio tiles at the entrance to a home in a horizontal pattern or in a diagonal pattern (which they referred to as a "diamond" pattern). The differences in visual impact between the two styles was talked about, and that made an impression on me, as it was not something that I would have given any thought to. BTW, they decided to use the diamond pattern.

 

So anyway, imagine my surprise the next morning to see horizontal versus diagonal framing discussed in this daily dose clip, ha ha. Aside from the question of which style of framing is more aesthetically appealing, the fact that they are different complements the difference between the legal braceros and the illegal braceros. Depending on the viewer's powers of observation, it underscores the difference either subliminally or obviously.

 

As for the daily dose prompts:

 

 -- What mood or atmosphere—through the visual design and the voiceover narration—is being established in this realistic documentary sequence? I think the sequence establishes that a non-fictional story is about to be told, and that it will contain dark elements. The voiceover narration assists in achieving this goal.

 

-- What do you think documentary realism adds to the evolution and increased range of the film noir style? I suspect many earlier films noir were based on true stories (I am thinking, for example, that "M" was probably inspired by a real-life serial killer of children), but Border Incident is the first time I have seen a film noir that appears to be a documentary. By doing this, it definitely widens the range of film noir from the settings of the usual murder/crime/detective/gangster arena. 

 

-- In what ways can the opening of Border Incident be considered an important contribution to the film noir style? The style used in the opening seems so different from earlier films noir that I would not have suspected that it was the opening to a noir film unless someone had told me it was the opening to a noir film. I suspect this example of realistic documentary film noir inspired follow-on examples. I have not seen In Cold Blood, but I understand it is based on Truman Capote's novel about an actual crime, so perhaps it is another example of a film noir that uses documentary realism?

 

- Tom Shawcross 

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Definitely a documentary style and feel; not noir at all in the opening, but boosterism about man's taming of nature, emphasized in the rectangular controlled grids of roads and square patterns of planted fields.A beautiful visual transition is made when we get to the grid of the chainlink fence--another "manmade" element, but one representing division and social stratification. Only at the end is there a hint where the noir might be coming from, among those few who don't respect the grid and its laws, who belongs in one section and who belongs in the other. We view an unfenced area where people are running more randomly but illegally. They are running to jobs, or toward home, or away from bandits, and here is a place where law doesn't apply. You just know that most of these crossings are going to be at night, and we're making the transition from plein air to noir. Like others, I wouldn't have guessed it right away, but the film-makers are getting us to Film noir beautifully. The indebtedness to crime fiction is clear when we're told that this is a True Story, although consolidated from several different ones.

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The way the camera pans over the landscape gives off an almost doom y feeling. The documentary feel throws you off a bit because it doesn't quite fit the film noir box, but you never want to keep things in a box. Even though the documentary style throws you for a loop if you look hard enough you can sense that it does have a bit of noir flair.

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When you watch the early noir movies and compare them to the neo-noir films that came later you get a sense of how the advent of realism in movies, like the journalistic approach in the opening of "Border Incident," helped usher in a style of movie-making in general that seems less contrived, more urgent. 

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The objective narration superimposed on the images of the vast (and realistic) landscape, and shots of people waiting or running (I looked at them and imagined actors at these points, actors against a real landscape, although I don't know for sure yet if they photographed real people or made these scenes up), makes me focus very much on "word choice," the creation of a documentary voice inside a fictional film.  Listen to the language that helps to frame the objective sense of realism in this film. (It sounds like the language I used to hear in documentaries in school and on TV in the Sixties.) Towards the end of the clip, the word "composite" coming from the narration helps us to shift from the opening documentary tone to one that will take us into a fiction (albeit one based on reality).  That word calls to mind some pieces of contemporary creative nonfiction that I have read, pieces that tell stories truthfully yet with the techniques of fiction (composite characters as opposed to "real" characters, for example).  I sense that inside the fiction of the film there is a moral truth that the story upholds.  It makes me curious about the empathy that is offered, one that makes be curious to see the whole film.

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It seems like the documentary opening let's us know that the film intends to address a social problem or issue.  It may do so through a fictional story, but it's letting us know that the issues in the story are real.  Many otter noir films also deal with social issues, but they do so in the course of the story and it's characters.  In this opening, the announcement that we're dealing with real issues is loud and clear.  There seems to be some historical development within noir as it went from the hard-boiled detectives and melodramas, to more over themes around social justice.

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As someone else mentioned I would not have noticed diagonal framing if it had not been mentioned. That's what's great about this class it makes you see things you otherwise would have missed. The aerial shot initially seem to be showing wide open spaces but the diagonal framing gives underlined sense of regimentation and being boxed in. Then cut to the scene of the workers behind the fence who are quite literally boxed in. It seems be foreshadowing loss of control over life and inevitable doom so common in film noir. The narrator's comment that the "vast army of workers" - "must be available when needed" also gives the impression of the workers lack of control over their own lives.

 

Even though it is still very much a documentary style we are still being led into a story. In this a story based on truth. Much like Sargent Friday when he would tell us "This is the city...,," in the old Dragnets. (I think I just gave away my age).

 

Before this class I would have never seen this opening as film noir but now I can see it has all the earmarks of the grim and fatalistic film noir I love. :)

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The ambient emmited by the opening scene of BORDER is truth, we are getting the hard facts. Instead of once upon a time, it is look here, we got this problem and you are going to face it or else.

 

Q2: In order for me to become completed immersed in a story these days, I want to know that it is based on a true story, then my suspense of disbelief is traded for a couple of hours of entertainment. Documentary realism was the seed of verti cinema and translates to today's realization that truth is stranger than fiction.

 

Q3: Mann takes a leap forward when the 1st person POV of early Noir is extended to social issues. The chain link fence is removed for us to offer hospitality to independence and deobjectify those not in our immediate circle. I becomes we.

 

I immediately was taken aback that these issues are still current, Wow!

 

I see the influence of BORDER in Italian neorealist movement and a film like BITTER RICE. Or, should I say Noir borrowed from them!

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The opening music gave me a sense that something bad was going to happen. As the aerial views panned over the landscape, the realistic images of the fields & trees made me think of the works of Andrew Wyeth painting in the regionalist style in the 30's & 40's. Then moving to the images of all the braceros and their anticipation of waiting at the border. The sense of anticipation, something dreadful about to happen, and realistic scenes all seem to me qualities of film noir.

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The mood of the opening of Border Incident created for me was a  type of newsreel, especially with the voiceover effect.

Very direct and intended to bring you current with certain facts that you were not aware of, bringing you in as a informational

realism leads us to believe the story just happened and then the fictional part starts the movie, but you suspect that 

it was a real one as well.

 

Many of these types of realism leads/opening  a movie set a stage for the crime drama wave of film noir.  

Very important in changing film noir to crime dramas that later developed.

 

As stated above the newsreel effect takes us to a realism and leads us to believe that a fictional movie maybe a real story,

very attention getting effect.

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