Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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I think the mood was not only set by the cinematography but by the music that was accompanying it -somber, serious, not messy around - things are bad and they have to change - that was what it said to me.  The lines that they had with all their angles and shots, even the sky had a line of clouds and then the sense of the triangle that was seen as well.  Using the triangle shapes also gave one the sense that there is a point - that point can be good or bad, but someing is coming to a head.

 

I think by using the documentary realism style you are connecting to the viewers on both a cultural basis (it is a film) but an issue that was relatable at that time as well as now.  They then know that this will be different from other films and it will be addressing an issue from not only crime, but race and money as well.

 

I think the opening shows the different direction that film noir is taking - it's just not a city or urban thing - it is a rural and country thing that affects other countries as well.

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

 

Although I haven't seen Border Incident, a few things jumped out at me from the credits alone. First, several of the actors listed were in MGM's Battleground, also made under Schary's leadership, and also widely praised as the most realistic war film made up to that point. Second, Charles McGraw is in the cast. That almost ensures that this is a noir. (We also saw him in The Killers). McGraw starred in one of the best B films ever made, The Narrow Margin, which is certainly noirish. 

 

The opening photography and narration, as pointed out by the Daily Dose preamble, signal realism to the audience. Although I doubt we are in for a documentary about migrant farm workers a la Edward R Murrow, we are being set up to see a film about how US immigration policy is causing unintended harm to Mexican migrant farm workers. The Mexicans congregating behind a fence and the facts adduced from the INS set the audience up to be critical of our own government in what we are about to see. So, the film is realistic and progressive in nature. This documentary style of fiction film making was done particularly well by 20th Century Fox in movies such as House on 92d St, 13 Rue Madeleine, and Call Northside 777. All of these films were examples of documentary realism, not noir. The fact that Border Incident is a noir will obviously benefit from a dose of realism in the beginning as a way to orient the audience's thinking about the subject matter and the filmmakers' political point of view.

 

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

 

Judging from the opening of Border Incident alone, since I haven't seen the film, the evolution and range would be increased by lending a factual aspect to a film genre, which is highly stylized and initially influenced by expressionism, which is unrealistic and symbolic.

 

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

 

By leading the audience to expect the story to be factual, realistic and progressive in nature, noir could also encompass subject matter that has a political perspective, which is meant to influence the audience to a particular way of thinking. 

 

 

 

 

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I've seen this movie, and I know George Murphy's fate.  So it's certainly a film noir.  But I don't like the opening.  It has a celebratory, uncritical take on the status quo, and implies that it's only the lawbreakers who are making things bad.  The end of the movie, when the status quo is re-established, has the same sort of attitude.  Maybe this has to do with post-war American attitudes about itself.  But I prefer films that show the dark side of that attitude.  

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

 

It starts off more relaxing and an informative teaching mood.  Then at the very end of the clip turns to a much darker turn or tone.

 

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

 

This clip feels very realistic.  The opening shot was very nice and stylish but still felt very realistic. 

 

 

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

 

This opening scene really opens us up to a story.  It does feel more true than most of the other movie clips viewed.  

 

 

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

 

To me, the opening played like the opening of Dragnet with LA replaced by California farmland, and a better soundtrack.  A very matter-of-fact narrator lays out interesting facts and statistics about desert farming, and how it operates.  Namely via the braceros, most of whom (like the good citizens of LA) abide the law, a few of whom do not and they, apparently, will be the focus of our tale of woe.  We are told the tale will be drawn from "composites" from official government files.

Mann has established that this dark world is the world we all inhabit, the "real" world.  (Scare quotes because who knows what 'real' is?)  Use of the documentary style heightens verisimilitude, and the realization that this isn't happening in some made up world (supposedly) but in our world, heightens the tension.  That, I believe, is a major contribution to noir style.

As for the cinematography, I saw a shift from a strong realist perspective in the early overhead shots of the canals and farms, to a more formalist perspective from the shot of the barbed wire fence against a darkened background, panning down to the faces of the braceros waiting for their papers, evoking pathos, silhouettes of "illegal entrants" returning to face bandits across the border in Mexico, mystery and more pathos, ending with a low angle shot of the border sign, which stands in contrast to the opening shots from an airplane looking down.

The synergy between realism and formalism shown here is, I think, an important feature of noir.  These films work so well because of the tensions built by portrayals of harsh realities, and the pathos of the human element.

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The opening sequence is realistic and like a documentary, seems to just tell the facts. However, the sequence has an undercurrent of tension that builds toward the end, enhanced by the unending bleak shot of the open fields and the camera's focus on such things as the fencing and lines stretching out to the horizon.

 

The fact that the narrator contrasts legal and illegal immigrants adds to that tension and delves into the social issues aspect of film noir.

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The only thing I would add to thoughts of others is that I found the music that starts with the opening credits is out of step with a documentary. It is way too dramatic and even jarring to be part of a documentary about farm workers. So, even if the opening seems to tell us we are seeing a documentary, the music tells us that we are going to be seeing something far more dramatic. I think the conflict between the music and what we see at the beginning is a film noir attribute I have seen in other films noir such as Jules Dassin's Night and the City.

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Watching the opening scene of Border Incident I get feeling that the mood being portrayed is one of hardship and suffering… a cruel existence.   The documentary realism adds to the noir style by it’s insistence upon real events which are often far more cruel, mean and nasty than any writer could invent. The opening to Border Incident adds to film noir via it’s use of rural settings, the implied impartial,  truthfulness of a voice-over narrator, and the darknening skies even in full daylight.

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My first thought is that this film's parallels to the struggles we face in today's America are almost taunting: man's ingenuity causing water to run freely through an otherwise hydro-disparate Southern California; 'bandits' stealing the profits from illegal immigrants who return to Mexico from laboring in America as braceros.  Very interesting.

 

For the purposes of this course, however, I will say that documentary realism seems a very interesting realm of film noir.  The shots here are not so stagnant as, say, a History Channel documentary series' shots.  There is purpose.  Our curator mentions diagonals; I'm left to wonder if Alton and Mann utilized this type of shot to retain dread and suspense in the reader, a technique which certainly retains film noir qualities within the clip.  A stark choice is clearly noticed when the film's narrator begins to speak about illegal immigrants crossing the borders to work as braceros.  The sky is suddenly dark, I even think I may have seen some lightning in those daunting clouds.  Here is where we see a filmmaker, not a documentarian, at work.  Here is dread, something outside of text and camera shots: here is film noir.

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The opening of Border Incident looks and sounds  like a 50's industrial film.  There's no hint that a noir is unfolding.  While I love documentaries as a rule, I don't think this style of film making holds up as well over time for noir genre films.  I suppose we have become so accustomed to Ken Burns' style of doc's that the clipped voice over narrations of yesteryear sound dated.   Update the clothes, hair styles and cars of many classic noirs (Laura, Double Indemnity et al) and they would still play well today.  By contrast the documentary style, I feel, might leave modern audiences unengaged.    

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Films Noir are very sympathetic with their characters.  They may be criminals morally ambiguous, trapped in circumstances beyond their control, plagued by bad decisions or just trying to survive but, we always feel for them.  Something inherited from the socially conscious gangster films.

 

The documentary opening of Border Incident tells us to anticipate a story about the problems of real people in the real world.  On the surface it's a world of plenty achieved by industriousness.  In the middle there's opportunity for large numbers of people who crowd the border waiting to follow the process and take advantage of that opportunity through the legitimate means. Underneath are those unable or unwilling to use the legitimate process.  They take their chances in the darkness and are victimized on both sides of the border.

 

On a personal note regarding the intertwining artistic influences on Film Noir,  if we consider John Huston to be Dashiell Hammett we can consider Anthony Mann to be Jim Thompson

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The opening for "Border Incident" doesn't necessarily feel like a Film Noir at first. It feels more like a travelogue. The bright scenery, and the cheery voice over narration does not feel particularly Noir-like at all. However, when we see and hear about the Mexicans trying to get into the United States, and then the ones who get in illegally, we get the sense that this is the primary source of drama in the film. It reminds me of "Casablanca", which opens with a very travelogue-like opening where the narrator talks about the refugee trail from Europe to Casablanca, and then mentions that many do not obtain an exit visa and are stuck. We get the feeling that this going to be a strong source of drama in the film. Or like Danny DeVito in the opening of "L.A. Confidential" saying that Los Angeles is sold through the media as heaven on earth, despite it being crime and scandal ridden. Although this is much more direct. DeVito's character is literally telling us that things are bad in spite of appearances, while "Casablanca" and "Border Incident" mention problems in paradise, but not that we as consumers are being taken for a ride.  

 

I like that the opening shots of "Border Incident" are aerial photography. It makes everything look so picturesque and beautiful from a distance, but, being a Film Noir, we know that closer up there is a much more sinister ugly side to this worker's "garden". The diagonal lines and angles that the camera captures the fields and canal from increase this feeling as well.

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The atmosphere being established is one of caution and alertness. It gives the viewer an uneasiness htat something dangerous is doubt to happen.  

 

Documentary realism adds a fresh narrative device to the noir style while also allowing the viewer to become immersed in the action of the story in a easy manner. The camera work used also frames the setting of the story in a  way where we get a concise amount of information to help us advance the story.

The opening of Border Incident is considered an important contribution to the film noir style because although we do not see one maln character on the screen, we are given everything we need to frame the setting of the story. There is also a switch in camera styles and lighting that vary from very bright to very dark. There's also overhead camera shots incorporated other techniques to create an interesting opening.

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The opening credits, with its thematic music, harsh and pounding and scenes of inhospitable terrain and title card with jagged edged lettering, are noir all the way. However, as soon as the credits are over the music changes. It is softer and more melodic, subtle under the familiar voice over narration recognizable to audiences. It is a voice of authority and believability. The aerial shots of long straight canals and retention ponds glistening from the sun, intersecting at right angles fade into farm land and rows of trees and crops dotted with people working the harvest. These are mostly shot using the noir technique of a Dutch angle, slanted across the screen.  Soon the narration starts talking about the how the farm worker come into the country, we see hordes of them behind a chain linked fence (more Dutch angles in the form of the fence). Soon the brightness of the film gives way to shadows and a more noir quality while the music, still subtle under the narration, also has a more ominous tone.  We see a dark shadowy barren landscape through a barbed wire fence, stretched across the screen at a slight angle.  All the while the narration, in a voice audiences have heard in countless documentaries and newsreels, sets the scene for Border Incident, a realistic noir film.

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As I viewed the clip, I felt that the  visual design along with voiceover narration helped to set the mood for the rest of the movie. I think that documentary realism adds a bit of human compassion ( in a way) to the film noir style.  The musical score during the introduction to the movie makes this film an important contribution to film noir.

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The opening of this movie is like a black-and-white version of one of those boring James FitzPatrick Traveltalk shorts.  I fear it will end with FitzPatrick narrating "...and so we reluctantly say a fond farewell to the Imperial Valley."

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Sometimes seeing film noirs for the first time can be an advantage. I truly do have fresh eyes when this happens.

 

The film starts on an optimistic note with the narrator describing the canals as breakthroughs to improve the land and provide water to this wasteland.  The farmlands show the abundance and supposed prosperity this part of America has.

 

The scene of the braceros behind the barbed wire fence show desperation in their eyes. They hope they will be permitted to work in America and send money to their families back home.

 

It all seems good until the music and the scene darkens and the narrator talks with a hint of menace about the illegal immigrants and how a case is dramatized. 

 

I almost expect the narrator to say "Pay attention! This could happen to YOU!!"

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

 

Unlike other films, this sequence does not set a mood of danger or mystery right off the bat. In fact, if I didn't know it was a fictional film, I very much would've thought it a documentary. What it sets up, rather than danger, is a more subtle air of conflict because while it starts off on a high note: "look at all these wonderful farms and fields..." continues to a mid-note: "look at all these people that we legally allow to work..." it ends on something more sinister: "some are illegally here... and they are robbed...and it's dangerous." So unlike other openings, there is no sense of immediate danger or urgency, but a slow and steady sense of something being amiss grows.

 

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

 

It definitely does, as it breaks some of the conventions that we've grown accustomed: intense scenes, PI and femme fatale characters, quick and witty dialogue, etc. Instead, it starts to play with our expectations and leaves us wanting to know more of what the situation is. I'm sure we're to fall upon a mystery, tension, danger, but how, where, when?

 

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

 

The play of the documentary style, forcing even more movie theme (lines: crop lines, people lines, border lines, etc) through cinematography, a voice-over that is not a character, etc.

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Just based on the first few minutes of Border Incident, I wouldn’t have guessed that this was a film noir.  It doesn’t have the same feel as other documentary-styled films noir like The Naked City.  The way the camera pans over the road with the cars traveling along the All American Canal while the narration talks about it being a monument to ingenuity and the importance of California farmlands makes the film feel like those short travelogues and newsreels TCM sometimes plays between movies.  Even when we see the migrant workers waiting to be let it, the film still feels more like a documentary.  The opening narration does lay out the necessary background information and helps to set up the story.  When we hear about the bandits who rob the braceros who hop the fence, we get our first tease of what the story is going to be about.  (On a side note, my main thought during this clip was essentially oh how things change—and remain the same.)  The narrator’s announcement that this story is based on real events further emphasizes the realism.  I suspect this type of film noir had a strong influence on crime shows like Dragnet.  The narrator’s announcement sounds a lot like, “The story you are about to see is true.  The names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

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The Imperial Valley is a good name for it, and the imperialists live north of the border. While the narrator talks about the grand harvest and how we need the Mexican workers to help us bring it to market, we see the Mexicans through a fence, being held back. The visuals are telling a different story, setting up an immediate tension, well worhy of film noir. Seems like the title is going to be more that just an "incident."

 

 

 

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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 opening music for Border Incident creates a mood of tension and suspense, then the narration moves to a style of an official government report. The visual design has the aircraft camera moving at an angle across the canal and fields suggesting a somewhat film noir thought.

 

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

Documentation realism as shown in Border Incident adds reality to a story. This is not just a made up story, but this is something that really happened and we will find out the truth.

 

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

The opening music adds suspense and then the narration style is an official government report something not seen before. Remember the opening dialog of Jack Webb in the Dragnet TV series... it's all there.

 

 

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Two moods were established by the clip. Starting with the opening title screen through the film credits the first mood of suspense and impending hardship and perhaps evil was established by showing the barren terrain and mountains and a barbed wire fence the illegal workers would have to overcome. The music also added to the tension. It built up in volume and tempo and was almost heroic in nature to a final climax suggesting a crisis was going to occur.

 

Then the shots of the Imperial Valley occured, long sweeping shots of agricultural fields and water cannals accompanied by music of a more soothing tone. The voice over utilized the documentary style and outlined the role of the immigrant farm worker as positive for both worker and farm owner. Then the voice of the narrator turned more somber when the problem of the illegal workers entered the story. He spoke of robbery, murder and explotation and the mood was set for a Noir film to unfold.

 

The documentary style makes a film seen more believable and realictic. It contrasts with the exageration of the original Noir films especially with regard to over- the- top dialogue.

 

Whenever the documentary style was introduced ( I don't know if this was the first documentart Noir film or not) into Noir film making it was a new and creative way to expand and layer the material making it more interesting to the viewer.

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"Border Incident" starts off with a real documentary style...objective realism. We see the real canal, the real fields and migrant laborers. The voice over gives us the facts but reveals a dark side to the labor stream that supplies the Imperial Valley

 

The flyover shots of the fields are almost dizzying...rows, diagonals, circular tree tops. Everything arrayed in neat rows as if life is well ordered. The close up faces of men behind the fences on the Mexican  -US border are looking...longingly...for the harvest of the well ordered life that the Imperial Valley might provide. It's a great name for a place. It establishes the "haves" and the "have nots." 

 

The noir feel sets in when we see desolate and shadowy terrain where the illegals cross back and forth. The landscape changes from those well ordered fields. It's open, arid looking and harsh. No place to hide and only signs tell you that whatever your doing...on either side of the border...is wrong.

 

This film comes one year after "The Naked City" and uses the mix of the voice over and aerial shots in effective ways of establishing where we are, what is there and who will be involved in our story.

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This probably contributed to film noir by showing true crime. The voice over was effective, describing the farming scenes as we saw them.

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I think the clip shows a contrast between the initial idea of the documentary and the musical score. While we're hearing the typical monologue of a documentary we're also hearing the contrasting music that builds to a crescendo that doesn't seem to jive together. Towards the end of the clip we understand where this is going to a certain extent and made me curious to see the rest of the film.

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