Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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I used to belong to a group where there was an active debate between some members about semi-documentary films such as BORDER INCIDENT being noir or not. I believe the development of noir and one of the first realism-tinged police thrillers, THE HOUSE ON 92nd STREET (1945), actually dovetailed, and that succeeding police/undercover man flicks took on more of the noir look after Anthony Mann's T-MEN appeared at the close of 1947. All of these films open with an official-sounding narration and location shooting to establish where the story mainly takes place and to identify the problem that brings the law into the matter at hand. Mann brought the format of T-MEN and its imitators to BORDER INCIDENT(even casting the earlier film's chief villain, Charles McGraw, in a similarly evil role) to create an opening that resembles a black-and-white Travel Talks short as it opens but becomes more sinister as the narration and visuals combine to show us Mexican workers looking to cross the border for U.S. farm wages, getting the jobs and pay, and then losing their earnings and/or lives in the bleak scrubland around the border -- all of it pointing to a desperate situation for for the workers and law enforcement. The world of noir, as pointed out by Professor Edwards, is not limited to dark urban streets, tenements or even the haunts of the very rich. Danger and evil can also be found on lonely expanses of benighted countryside, with nearby mountains adding to a sense of entrapment for the poor. That's the image I carry from the closing of the clip as the camera then pans to the fencing and no crossing warnings. Realism was the vogue audiences favored in the post-World War II years and it became easy to use actual locations to set stories with noir elements. M-G-M, under Dore Schary's influence, began offering darkly-plotted movies with a real sense of location about this time with SCENE OF THE CRIME (1949, the streets of Los Angeles), SIDE STREET (1949, New York City) and A LADY WITHOUT PASSPORT (1950, Havana). BORDER INCIDENT borrows some from earlier noirish documentary films, but does so with style and makes the case that these gritty, reality-based crime films are solidly in the noir vein.

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This clip reminded me of Italian Neo-Realism which, like Film Noir, emerged after WWII and wanted to capture a feeling and a message that traditional films lacked. 

 

I looked up the quinessential Italian Neo-Realism film, Da Sica's The Bicycle Thief.  It came out in 1948, one year before Border Incident.  One of Hollywood's best attributes is that they keep an eye on world cinema and incorporate elements from foreign films.

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While I am no historian, but what little I know of World Events, I am not surprised by the correlation between German Expressionism and Film Noir.  Prior to World War I, German’s economy wasn’t stable or prosperous.  The War didn’t help.  In the United States, we had the Great Dust Bowl and the Stock Market Crash 

 

Could film noir have been our way of expressing cultural thoughts, experiences, and feelings the Great Depression?

 

The narrator for the opening of Border Incident has the same inflections of a noir film narrator.  Even if the sentence runs on, he breaks it with short beats of delivery.  He relishes the darker words like “human suffering.”  Plus, he establishes quickly that many of the noir themes will be covered in the film:  untold wealth, poor people looking to make an honest living, criminals that circumvent the societal standards.  The only thing missing from this clip is the promise of swift justice!

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This looks more like a documentary than something that could be classified as film noir, and obviously since this is still a problem, a documentary that failed.  At the very beginning, I almost expected to see some cheesy Disney clip of the modern family on a car trip through the vast California desert, with Dad steering while smoking a cigarette, Mom unfolding the map to prove that they're lost, and the kids arguing in the backseat or playing car BINGO.  

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I'm not sure if this was the first noir to be filmed documentary-style, but if so, it was innovative. It would eventually lead to The Naked City, one of the more famous films noir of all time. I'm not sure if the voiceover setup was necessary, but the backstory sure helps. As the scene ends, you can sense the desperation of the braceros from the shots of them standing behind the gate trying to gain entry into the States. My main thought as the video came to an end was that there was desperate times call for desperate measures, and I feel like that's where the noir elements will come into the story. I've never seen this film, but I'm certainly intrigued. 

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It seems to start as a pleasant little documentary about farming in California, but with the pictures of the workers caged behind the fences and the mention of the huge amounts of money that will be made it quickly becomes clear that the contrast between the haves and have nots is going to feature strongly in the story.  It strongly suggests that there is likely to be an unhappy ending.  I look forward to watching this film. 

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"Border Incident", just from the trailer and opening scene, what a horrible, dark, depressing, bleak movie.  I'm not going to enjoy watching this one.

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I used to belong to a group where there was an active debate between some members about semi-documentary films such as BORDER INCIDENT being noir or not. I believe the development of noir and one of the first realism-tinged police thrillers, THE HOUSE ON 92nd STREET (1945), actually dovetailed, and that succeeding police/undercover man flicks took on more of the noir look after Anthony Mann's T-MEN appeared at the close of 1947. All of these films open with an official-sounding narration and location shooting to establish where the story mainly takes place and to identify the problem that brings the law into the matter at hand. Mann brought the format of T-MEN and its imitators to BORDER INCIDENT(even casting the earlier film's chief villain, Charles McGraw, in a similarly evil role) to create an opening that resembles a black-and-white Travel Talks short as it opens but becomes more sinister as the narration and visuals combine to show us Mexican workers looking to cross the border for U.S. farm wages, getting the jobs and pay, and then losing their earnings and/or lives in the bleak scrubland around the border -- all of it pointing to a desperate situation for for the workers and law enforcement. The world of noir, as pointed out by Professor Edwards, is not limited to dark urban streets, tenements or even the haunts of the very rich. Danger and evil can also be found on lonely expanses of benighted countryside, with nearby mountains adding to a sense of entrapment for the poor. That's the image I carry from the closing of the clip as the camera then pans to the fencing and no crossing warnings. Realism was the vogue audiences favored in the post-World War II years and it became easy to use actual locations to set stories with noir elements. M-G-M, under Dore Schary's influence, began offering darkly-plotted movies with a real sense of location about this time with SCENE OF THE CRIME (1949, the streets of Los Angeles), SIDE STREET (1949, New York City) and A LADY WITHOUT PASSPORT (1950, Havana). BORDER INCIDENT borrows some from earlier noirish documentary films, but does so with style and makes the case that these gritty, reality-based crime films are solidly in the noir vein.

The Naked City is considered a Film Noir, but I never thought it was.  It always felt more like a police procedural and the documentary style enhanced that feeling.

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The movie opens with the dramatic and somewhat ominous music and harsh landscape thus setting a very serious tone. With no warning, we have a nonchalant narrative introduction with a fly over shot as if you were watching a typical travelogue that you may see as a short before a feature film. A difference I notice is that with most travelogues, a fly over tends to follow the road or natural feature as if you were traveling on it and may pan to give you a view that you may have experienced on that trip.

 

In this case the angled shot is not the familiar view and although the narrative is relatively calm and ordinary, it creates a sense that things are a bit off so that the viewer is not entirely comfortable. As in yesterday's Daily Dose #10, the scene transition from realistic diner to formalistic Swede's room; The Killers diner shot grounded the audience with a realistic environment of something they know so that they can take the emotional ride into territory for which they don't have personal experience, as in Swede's acceptance of his fate.

 

Border Incident needs to ground the audience as well. The challenge is that very few people could relate to life at the border so a documentary style with references to Federal Agency data allows them to set a foundation that makes it credible and real for every viewer. They can then take you to the individuals behind the fence and discuss the dangers and evil that can befall anyone not following the law. In this case, I would suggest that realism to formalism transition along with moving from the arial shot to ground level helps take the viewer from observer to participant for the emotional journey to follow.

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I noticed how the camera is constantly panning to the right until the night scene with the illegal border crossing when it abruptly starts panning to the left, creating a feeling of unease and of "going the wrong way." The contrast between the light and dark scenes, combined with the reversal of the camera-pan, underlines this idea of the huge difference between going about things the right way, and going about them the wrong or illegal way. (After all, to quote from The Asphalt Jungle, "crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor...").

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In my opinion, this opening scene has three particular moments that contribute to establish the noir's particular mood through cinematic strategies borrowed from the realistic documentary style.

By very first moments of Anthony Mann's Border Incident, one couldn’t have guessed that this was in fact the begining of a film-noir. Other films noir, such as Jules Dassin's The Naked City, share this tendency for documentary modes of exposition and narration, taking to its limit the realistic vocation of cinema: both films are filmed on location and resort to impersonal narration in voice-over, giving the viewer the sensation that he's more probably about to watch to a journalist reportage of social content than to a fiction story of a particular movie genre/style. This documentary aspect is usually more evident in the opening sequence of the films - then the expository device tends to disappear giving way to more conventional Hollywood's strategies of storytelling - and sometimes it is resumed by the end of the film, which actually happens in Border Incident (the voice over reappears to conclude the film).

Border Incident opens with a series of bird's eye shots of the landscape of agricultural workplaces; at the same time, the high angle shots and the travelling movement's of the camera, along with the geometrical imagery of the farm fiels, without any visible sign of the human presence, seem to put the viewer at a distance from the social matter exposed by the voice-over; but that objective relationship between the passive viewer and the documentary subject soon evolves to one from which emerges a deep sense of humanity, as the camera pans down to show the faces of the mexican men waiting at the border, behind the fence: notice the visual composition, the treatment of the human being as one among a multitude, the grating imagery evoking prison, giving the idea of a doomed community at the margins of humanity. If in this second moment of the sequence it is drama that enters the framing, in the third and last one it will be tension that installs itself in the scene: the voice gets serious, the music changes, the image darkens and the lighting becomes expressive, stressing the threatening and mysterious quality of the inhospitable landscape.

Film-noir was clever in searching ways to criticize the illusion of the American Dream, and this scene does a similar working: at the begining it seems to present America as a land full of possibilities, and then it exposes the dark side of "the dream", built at the cost of human labor without conditions.

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Daily Dose 11 Border Incident (1949)

 

Director: Anthony Mann

Writers: John C. Higgins (screenplay and story), George Zuckerman (story)

Cast: Ricardo Montalban, George Murphey, Howard Da Silva, James Mitchell

IMDb:  Mexican and American federal agents tackle a vicious gang exploiting illegal farm workers in southern California.

 

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

               Squares of anything are potentially boring.  This opening relieves viewers of that burden by constructing the shots so that square farm plots are in a visual dimension that emphasizes large scale which is emphasized again by height of the shots.  The squares are made more interesting and dialogue provides purpose, meaning, and backstory.  Together, the world the audience is about to enter is introduced by showing an effected arrangement of lines explained by narration.

               Narration embellishes the film’s world in terms of why and what is important.  The visual understanding of what is seen is enhanced by explanations of what is necessary to maintain the business of farming in the Imperial Valley in California.  Then the heart of the story is presented as the problem of exploitation within the farming industry and that the film has a large basis in fact.

               The language of the camera and narration sets the mood for a story based on fact.  As the story progresses, I expect to find out about social circumstances that produce desperation and hope that economic gains make life less of a struggle, improves circumstances, and eases the lives of the braceros.

               So, we have now been set up to ease up on certain intellectual responsibilities.  Veiled in ‘fact’, our sense of objectivity is justifiably less as we settle in to absorb some facts.  Authenticity is now embedded in the events about to unfold before our very eyes and as such, could be trusted to be the truth about this film’s opening hypothesis.  Though a film story can be truthful, the film story itself in not truth per se.  It is a film.

 

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

               The film noir makers of the ‘B’ movie class did not have as much respect as the ‘A’ filmmakers.  B filmmakers were able to use documentary realism to raise the bar of respect from their ‘class’ of film.  This style was encouraged by studios.  I think an important influence and reason is because of the realism of World War II.

               Newspapers, photographs, and Movietone News.  Movietone newsreels ran from 1928 until 1963.  The reels brought real moving pictures of defeats, victories, and battlefield concerns to people’s eyes and into their sense of reality.  The reels, shown in movie theaters, were usually a few minutes long and definitely affected the people who watched.

               Everyone wanted to know if the war was being won and these visual documentations of war events tended to allay fears and raise fears about whether or not relatives, friends, and loved ones survived the action depicted on the Movietone reels.

               The power of the facts were considerable in film and for film noir, and it seems to me a natural step to use and cause a sense of reality as part of the noir story, true or seemingly true.  After all, noir was already dealing with known subjective emotions in terms of dark and gritty criminal behavior.  Now, the noir style can be enhanced with the added flavors of objective points of view about the subjective emotions and actions of people doing bad things and about the counter forces of people trying to find the facts in order to put things right.

 

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

               The use of documentary realism affects the way film noir is perceived as factual or realistic.  The murder, in The killers (1944) opening moments, seems real if we “suspend disbelief” of knowing what we see is not real, but the fact is, we believe it did not actually occur.  In the documentary realism, what we see is not real, but the facts of the story are based on real conditions that did occur.

               Suspending disbelief in order to take part in being told a fictional story, is different when being told a story based on fact.  It creates a different and interesting point of view and sense of perception about the subject a fact based story.

               What we see in not true in the sense it is not a CCTV video of murder during a bank robbery – that’s true enough.  It’s enough evidence to convict if positive identification is possible.  What we see in documentary realism is perhaps documentation of fact, but not documentation of when the fact occurred.  This form of film noir makes a dark, gritty, and poignant story more believable because the flavor of the cinematic experience is based on information qualified as true.

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In sharp contrast to Expressionism, and some of the other core elements inherent in noir, which often strive to bend, twist and negate both time and 'reality', turn it inward and make it highly subjective, documentary realism in film noir does the exact opposite; it roots the story and narrative in a particular period...frames the setting, in a distinct time and place.  In the process, it establishes a common construct, a communal context that lends the narrative and its characters both familiarity and heightened veracity.  

 

But that heightened veracity and immediacy comes at a price.   Realism has little choice but to lean on the present at the expense of the past and the future, but for that reason such verisimilitude can become stale and date itself very quickly.   

 

I think that's why some noir films done in the documentary realism style --- Border Incident, The Naked City, The House on 92nd Street, etc. tend to 'look' and feel more dated than say The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Murder My Sweet or Out of the Past, despite all being roughly of the same period.  

 

Besides being perhaps a little too much like watching the evening news or reading the morning newspaper...and yesterday's news at that...most films noir employing documentary realism of this period tend to lack larger-than-life main characters...heroes or villains...and the larger-than-life plots, intrigues and themes that go with them.   The main characters are usually reduced to homestyle, garden variety leading characters, criminals and capers, and the themes often take on larger social conditions or problems driving character actions and choices rather extreme examples of individual lust, greed or honor taken to deadly excess.   

 

One aspect of the documentary realism style of noir that I do like is the emphasis on exterior landscape to set and maintain mood and tone; especially once-familiar but now lost citi-scapes that unfold like mini-time-capsules on the screen.     

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Daily Dose 11- Border Incident (1949)

 

Director: Anthony Mann

Writers: John C. Higgins (screenplay and story), George Zuckerman (story)

Cast: Ricardo Montalban, George Murphey, Howard Da Silva, James Mitchell

IMDb:  Mexican and American federal agents tackle a vicious gang exploiting illegal farm workers in southern California.

 

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

               Squares of anything are potentially boring.  This opening relieves viewers of that burden by constructing the shots so that square farm plots are in a visual dimension that emphasizes large scale which is emphasized again by height of the shots.  The squares are made more interesting and dialogue provides purpose, meaning, and backstory.  Together, the world the audience is about to enter is introduced by showing an effected arrangement of lines explained by narration.

               Narration embellishes the film’s world in terms of why and what is important.  The visual understanding of what is seen is enhanced by explanations of what is necessary to maintain the business of farming if the Imperial Valley in California.  Then the heart of the story is presented as the problem of exploitation within the farming industry and that the film has a large basis in fact.

               The language of the camera and narration sets the mood for a story based on fact.  As the story progresses, I expect to find out about social circumstances that produce desperation and hope that economic gains make life less of a struggle, improves circumstances, and eases the lives of the braceros.

               So, we have now been set up to ease up on certain intellectual responsibilities.  Veiled in ‘fact’, our sense of objectivity is justifiably less as we settle in to absorb some facts.  Authenticity is now embedded in the events about to unfold before our very eyes and as such, could be trusted to be the truth about this film’s opening hypothesis.  Though a film story can be truthful, the film story itself in not truth per se.  It is a film.

 

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

               The film noir makers of the ‘B’ movie class did not have as much respect as the ‘A’ filmmakers.  B filmmakers were able to use documentary realism to raise the bar of respect from their ‘class’ of film.  This style was encouraged by studios.  I think an important influence and reason is because of the realism of World War II.

               Newspapers, photographs, and Movietone News.  Movietone newsreels ran from 1928 until 1963.  The reels brought real moving pictures of defeats, victories, and battlefield concerns to people’s eyes and into their sense of reality.  The reels, shown in movie theaters, were usually a few minutes long and definitely affected the people who watched.

               Everyone wanted to know if the war was being won and these visual documentations of war events tended to allay fears and raise fears about whether or not relatives, friends, and loved ones survived the action depicted on the Movietone reels.

               The power of the facts were considerable in film and for film noir, and it seems to me a natural step to use and cause a sense of reality as part of the noir story, true or seemingly true.  After all, noir was already dealing with subjective emotions in terms of dark and gritty criminal behavior.  Now, the noir style can be enhanced with the added flavors of objective points of view about the subjective emotions and actions of people doing bad things and about the counter forces of people trying to find the facts in order to put things right.

 

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

               The use of documentary realism affects the way film noir is perceived as factual or realistic.  The murder, in The killers (1944) opening moments, seems real if we “suspend disbelief” of knowing what we see in not real.  In the documentary realism, what we see is not real, but the facts of the story are based on real conditions.

               Suspending disbelief in order to take part in being told a fictional story, is different when being told a story based on fact.  It creates a different and interesting point of view and sense of perception about the subject a fact based story.

               What we see in not true in the sense it is not a CCTV video of murder during a bank robbery – that’s true enough.  It’s enough evidence to convict if positive identification is possible.  What we see in documentary realism is perhaps documentation of fact, but not documentation of when the fact occurred.  This form of film noir makes a dark, gritty, and poignant story more believable because the flavor of the cinematic experience is based on information qualified as true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The opening sequence of Border Incident uses Noir stylistic elements, such as diagonal shots, tense music and a terse voiceover to convey a mood of discomfiture, letting us know something bad is gonna happen. I think that even if I didn't speak English, I would be able to figure out both the gist and the tone of the movie based solely on the way it looks and sounds in those first few minutes. But the narration does set the Noir table for us, establishing the stakes (a multi-million dollar industry), the motive for nefarious activities (the desperate livelihoods of countless braceros & the limited numbers of guest worker passes available) and the means by which things will go terribly wrong (those who "assist" migrant workers to cross the border illegally), in the movie to come.

 

I feel like the documentary style is a great mesh with Noir. The gritty feel of a black-and-white, old school newsreel combined with some Noir filming techniques, subject matter and worldview, really grabs my attention and makes me want to see what happens next.

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I always liked realism in films, especially films noir. I admit that a narrative film is not a documentary, and its creators should have the right to express their ideas and imagination with a bit of formalism, expressionism or any other artistic means, but in the case of a film noir I believe that, as it depicts reality and have nothing to do with science fiction or something unreal, it should deviate from realism only when it profits in artistic quality by doing so.

 

I haven't watched the film and, as I have never been in America, it's not possible for me to know whether the Mexican borders in 1949 were as the film depict them, but if I watched this opening scene without knowing what it is, I'd definitely say it's a documentary; not a narrative feature. Contemporary audience may compared it to a newsreel and I don't blame them as it contains every element of it, especially the narrator who explains to the audience what they are watching.

 

As I haven't watched the film I can't exactly say what was that the director wanted to achieve by shooting this scene with documentary realism, but it was convincing enough to make me curious about what comes next. I have watched other semi-documentary noirs, such as Boomerang! and The Naked City, which I consider a masterpiece of its own, directed by the talented Jules Dassin.

 

This realistic style is contradicting to German Expressionism and the other European influence in films noir we have seen in the last couple of Daily Doses, but it has contributed to noir style as much as them. The director and, as a consequence, the viewer, is rather an impartial observer of the film and doesn't sympathize with or hate any characters, as in other films noir with much more personal POV. The voiceover narrator also seems impartial and a bit distant from the characters and the events in the film and, at least, you know he is reliable, in contrast to films when a character narrates and you don't know whether you should believe them or not.

 

I have noticed before (as did many others) that film noir stlye is a unique combination of realism, as depicted here, and other, more abstact styles influenced mainly by German Expressionism. You can find a film noir closely resembling a documentary and another one not looking realistic at all, but they are both noirs and could be great ones, too.

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The landscape stills under the opening credits introduce the movie's location. The pictures impart a sense of peace; however, the bold, slanted title lettering and dramatic music belie the calm and promise hard-edged action. The blocks of lettering are arranged to align with the angles in the images.

 

After the credits, with the aerial shots we start to move in a diagonal rightward direction which gives the sense of traveling with a purpose. The authoritative, factual narration and the gods-eye view tells us that we're about to be dropped into a real-life situation. This sequence has the tone of one of those old-fashioned documentary shorts touting some aspect of human achievement and the triumph of modern civilization. But we sense that there's trouble in paradise - because this is going to be a crime story!

 

The altitude has gradually been descending in the course of the sequence. Then our view drops to the ground and we see the first people - armies of farmworkers held back by the double-chainlink border fence hoping to cross over and earn their livelihood. The fence's diagonals continue the lines of the canals and crop rows. The narrator tells us that the Mexican workers, who provide a vital service to us, mostly abide by the law and follow procedure but a small percentage of them cross illegally and become easy prey for robbers and traffickers - a hierarchy of criminals preying upon lesser criminals. This is a wholly different take on noir philosopy from openings like yesterday's THE KILLERS who set up a world totally immersed in fatalism and inescapable destiny. Here the opening suggests a largely orderly world with pockets of disorder (crime) which can be and will be stamped out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It feels like I'm watching a newsreel with the voiceover by the narrator giving me the facts.  Credibility is boosted by telling us the story is based on facts provided by the Immigration and Naturalization Department of Justice.  

 

I found this to be very unlike the other clips we have watched so far and it has opened my eyes a bit to other possibilities in which film noir style can show up. I'm not sure that I really loved this opening, but I'm willing to explore this documentary realism a bit more.

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The gritty contrast of desert against fertile fields fed by a man-made canal to generate a multi-million-dollar industry worked by immigrant labor - narrated by an unemotional newsreel/documentary voiceover.  The setup here is that you know there will be corruption and things will go wrong because the system itself - and its motivation for profit over human comfort - opens the door for those who would break the law.  Wow, to think that this film was made 66 years ago, and we are still dealing with the same issues - it is just mind-boggling!   I enjoyed this clip; and I want to see the entire film.

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The credits and the opening scene are almost exact opposites. Based on the music and font of the credits, there was an expectation of the first scene to lead into something dark and menacing. However, the opening scene resembled a MGM Traveltalk on California. It was very unexpected however it added the question, "Ok, when is this story going to pick up to the dark and menacing storyline that the opening credits alluded to?". Seems very interesting and a must see!

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Of course, the first thing I noticed about the opening of "Border Incident" was the music under the musical direction of Andre Previn.  Nice!

 

The voice-over and the views of Imperial Valley are very compelling.  This could be the beginning of a documentary, rather than a film noir.  One is really able to see how film noir can be a part of every day life, rather than some abstract, bizarre make-believe world that doesn’t really touch us.  (And here I’m thinking “Ministry of Fear.” Although its war setting was real, the story was too far away from reality.)

 

Unfortunately, I probably will not be able to see “Border Incident,” as it will be on Friday night at 11:30 p.m.   It would be nice for us neophytes who haven’t seen these movies before, if the movies in the “Daily Dose” clips could be on either during the day or in prime time.    I will have to catch up with “Border Incident” at some other time.   

 

P.S.  I don't tape or record.  I find if I do so, I never have time to watch anyway.  Crazy, I know. :wacko:

 

     

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Well it certainly was a different opening than most film noirs' but we still are able to find out what is going on because there is still a voice over even if it is documentary style.  One would have to figure that something criminal is going to happen when you have an industry like the migrant workers because it is really hard to monitor all those people and believe me I know because I live in Arizona.

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This opening reminded me of the clip we watched in Lecture 2 discussing Realism with the opening scene from The Naked City. Everyone seems to have covered the elements of Noir in this scene. MichaelG8 quotes imdb's summary as: "Mexican and American federal agents tackle a vicious gang exploring illegal farm workers in Southern California."

 

All I can add is What else is new? And that was realism 65 years ago.

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Well it certainly was a different opening than most film noirs' but we still are able to find out what is going on because there is still a voice over even if it is documentary style.  One would have to figure that something criminal is going to happen when you have an industry like the migrant workers because it is really hard to monitor all those people and believe me I know because I live in Arizona.

This movie shows how little things have changed in 65 years, either in California or Arizona (my home, too).

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The Border Incident… by way of Chinatown

 

I confess that my first impression of The Border Incident had little to do with course work.  I was struck by how differently this film would resonate with American and Mexican audiences of 2015 as opposed to those in the mid-1940s.  For the latter, issues of water rights, drought, ruined farms, and immigration had not yet reached the hot-potato stage of controversy they are today.

 

I wrongly assumed that California’s Imperial Valley, touted in The Border Incident as a “flourishing garden,” would today be parched and lunar-like, judging by the talking heads on TV. Not so. It turns out that, thanks to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Imperial Valley (population approx. 175,000) is apparently still lush from 3.1 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado.  Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million people, receives only 1.1 million acres-feet of water.  And now, during severe and prolonged drought, there are rumblings aplenty.

 

Once more, life imitates art and vice-versa.  This free association brought to mind Roman Polanski’s classic neo-noir Chinatown, which centers on water rights in 1937 San Francisco. Though Chinatown is not vintage noir and is not presented as a documentary like The Border Incident, it shares a commonality in being based on actual events and characters. However, Chinatown’s plot is highly stylized fiction, while The Border Incident is highly stylized fact.

  

To extend the comparison, Chinatown’s Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) speaks in his signature nasal, bored-to-tears voice, typical of classic film noir PIs. The VO of The Border Incident sounds as if narrating global destruction and is augmented by a foreboding musical intro (directed by Andre Previn, known best now as a classical musician and conductor).  As music and VO boom, ominous images of rain clouds and craggy rock formations appear. Then a CU of anxious faces pressed against double fencing, with razor wire looming overhead.  It’s all a bit much, in my opinion. The topic is valid and serious, but it isn’t Armageddon. For me, documentary realism married to film noir seems contrived and awkward. But then to the survivors of the horrors of WWII, it may have seemed perfectly normal.  Context, context. 

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