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Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Darkness #11: Crossing Over (Opening Scene from Border 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 voiceover narration is a “good news, bad news” story.  It begins with praise for the “man’s industry” in making a “flourishing garden” out of this “desert wasteland” to create the “great agricultural empire” in the Imperial Valley along the U.S.-Mexican border.  A part of this is the political and social achievement of employing Mexican braceros to work the fields and providing necessary income to those workers in return.  The tone of the voiceover is informative and positive in the style of documentaries and travelogues of the 30’s and 40’s.  The bad news starts at 2:47 when the narrator says, “But, there are other braceros who come and go illegally . . . .”  The narration thus sets the tone for a story that will involve bandits who infest both sides of the border, human suffering, and injustice.

The visual design accompanying this narration may be realistic but it is also quite subjective.  Choices are made throughout the sequence that reflect the intentions of Mann and Alton to tell their story in the noir style.  In the title frame itself we see the title of the film presented obliquely across the screen and superimposed over the wires of a fence converging diagonally.  The nature scenes behind the credits are quite different from the brightly lit mountains in High Sierra.  These use high contrast to emphasize both darkness and light.  In particular, the scene behind the credit for producer Nicholas Nayfack features a dark shadow that forms a jagged diagonal across a bright mountain backdrop, and the dusklike view behind Anthony Mann’s credit suggests anything but a happy end.  André Previn’s dramatic music during the credit sequence suggests tension and conflict.

When the narration begins for the “good news” story, the music changes to pleasant travelogue music as the aerial images roll by.  The images show geometric patterns with many diagonals and crossed lines.  The images are all long shots; there are no close-ups of trees heavy with ripe fruit to emphasize the value of the crops described in the narration.  At 2:17 the first ground shot begins with another geometric pattern: the oblique barbed wire and multiple chain-link fences that form the border behind which patient, “good” braceros are waiting to receive their “coveted American work permits.”  When the “bad news” story begins at 2:47, the camera shifts to a long pan shot along a simple barbed wire fence along a wild stretch of the border.  In the dim, low-contrast day for night lighting, one can see a few of the “other braceros” about to jump the fence and enter the U.S. illegally.

 

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

 

Documentary realism gets the noir style away from the rain-slick streets of the studio lot and opens up the possibility for themes relevant to the contemporary viewer.  Whereas Henry Hathaway and Norbert Brodine incorporated actual documentary FBI film footage along with location shooting in creating the influential procedural film The House on 92nd Street in 1945, Mann and Alton go into nature and shoot the images they need to tell the story of Border Incident in the noir style.  One may call it documentary because it uses images of real places not staged or manipulated for a film, but the choices made in image selection and lighting reflect the artistic harnessing of those elements to achieve a noir mentality.

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This clip from Border Incident begins with dramatic shots of the rugged landscape as the opening credits roll. The terrain looks dangerous, barren, dark, with cliffs. It is natural beauty made sinister by the dark lighting and shadow. The music in the background is makes it seem like a Cecil B. DeMille epic story.

Once the voice-over begins the mood changes. The lighting is bright as the camera pans from above the "wasteland" made into a "flourishing garden" by progress and industry. The fields are planted and present order with perfectly straight lines of crops and trees shown at an angle. The effect makes them the landscape look beautiful and appealing. There is a sense of perfect order and dominance as the voice tells us how wonderful progress has been. It tells of the need for Mexican workers to work the fields, and we see little dots in disarray among the rows, little faceless people, objects if you will, in contrast to the perfect rows. Shot from above, they look like ants working the rows, except there is no order.

The next shot as the voice-over changes, as well as camera, is now close-up of the faces of the braceros who stand behind the double chain link fencing with barbed-wire at the top. The voice explains with gravity about those who "obey the laws who wait for the coveted American work permits or crossing cards." And then it shows the barbed wire fence and three men running across in towards the barbed wire with the sign clearly stating "Crossing Prohibited: US Territory. The men run in the dark, towards the fence as the voice tells us about these "other braceros" who cross over illegally to work for awhile it the US only to be attacked by bandits on both sides who steal their money.

The rest of the clip shows the men being attacked by bandits, robbed, killed and left to disappear in quicksand, never to be seen or heard from again.

The contrast between the perfection of the fields and the surrounding treacherous terrain and the Mexican workers who have to navigate through the system that is fraught with problems to face and barbed wire fences is so sad.

The documentary style helps to set the stage, in present the stark reality that is so common in film noir - the dark aspects in contrast with the sense of order and light. It helps to "illuminate" the darkness in the underbelly of the seemingly bright beautiful orderly world - the real world.

It lends credibility and authority to what is being shown.

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The documentary style adds a sense of apparent authority and objectivity. The narration and overview of the lands makes us (the viewers) feel like we should trust what the movie is saying; this isn't a dream or inner workings of a person, but an objective overview about migrant workers. But, we must remember that this is film noir, where hidden meanings and innuendos are in every scene, making us question what it is we're really seeing. This combination - objective and subjective views - reminds us that nothing is truly objective; that no more matter how authoritative or realist a view or opinion may seem, there is always an element of subjectivity, a skewed view formed from different, unique experiences.

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Throughout this clip there are hints of trouble lying ahead. The voice over dropped phrases such as California is "entirely dependent" on the farm workers to harvest their crops, meaning that the farm workers technically have the upper hand. They describe the farm workers as "mostly following their country's laws and ours" indicating that there are some who don't and therefore could cause a problem. And finally they talk about the illegal workers who steal the earnings of the legal ones and call it a great "injustice". It is setting the stage for an explosion between legals and illegals. One of the visuals that really caught my attention was the workers waiting for their visas. They are crammed together behind wire and it looks like they're animals in a cage, trapped. It makes it seem like this movie is based on a true story or depicting a true story which makes it more poignant and emotional. 

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The documentary realism brings to mind Hitchcock ("The Birds") and "The Twilight Zone" ("...a land of shadow and substance...") in that the everyday quality of the realism lulls us into a comfort level that causes an even greater shock later. We think we know where we are, but we don't really...

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The documentary realism brings to mind Hitchcock ("The Birds") and "The Twilight Zone" ("...a land of shadow and substance...") in that the everyday quality of the realism lulls us into a comfort level that causes an even greater shock later. We think we know where we are, but we don't really...

Agreed

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1) I enjoyed the continuous panning of the camera regardless of the image on the screen. It seems to emphasize that everything is connected (reliant upon one another)--the land, the workers, society in general.

 

2) The documentary style brings this story closer to home. Many films noir are set in a world the audience views as fantasy--gangsters, molls, private eyes; whereas, the documentary style allows the audience to believe this really could happen (really is happening). It also gives the audience something to think about/discuss after the film ends because it is more relatable.

 

3) Final thought re. the last image of the opening scene: The "crossing prohibited sign" backlit by the sun resembles an actual cross, which begs the question, "Who/what is going to be crucified/sacrificed in this film?"

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At first, this opening plays like an old newsreel or propaganda films, something you might see in a museum or bonus feature of a DVD. The mood shifted once the voiceover narration - sounding at first candid, informative, and objective - speaks more dramatically as we have our first glimpse of three running figures in the distance and engulfed in darkness. The visual of them stealthily traipsing towards the border is a red flag, as it contrasts greatly from the faces of the determined, law-abiding workers to whom we are introduced through a pan shot as the narration speaks highly of them and their sense of ethics.

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In Anthony Mann's Border Incident, 1949, the visual design and the voice-over narration creates an atmosphere of alertness, tension, and warning in this realistic sequence.  Documentary realism adds an air of authentication which can be more frightening and disarming.  The "truth" can be used to heighten the film noir story and Border Incident is an important contribution of this because it is probably one of the first of its kind to do this.

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I mentioned in the discussion of Detour that the film reminded me of a later noir-inspired TV series, The Twilight Zone. This one reminded me of another noir-inspired TV series: Dragnet. Jack Webb brought in the no-nonsense, tough-as-nails cops, the mean streets and the jazz score, but underpinned it with this sort of "just the facts, ma'am", "the story you are about to see is true" sort of storytelling that drags you into it and makes you feel a part of it.

Yes I think that is the point of the documentary style.  To create a believability to the upcoming noir drama.  The more facts and everyday events you start with the greater the nightmare descent into the formalistic world that comes later. 

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


Visually, we are shown a peaceful, orderly landscape -- the natural one of farms and waterways, plus the human peaceful, orderly landscape of braceros awaiting entry to work the land. The mood of the narrator, however, anticipates something going awry as he voices the fact that most workers from Mexico follow the laws, implying that this movie will show a "border incident" focusing on injustice.


 


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


The vast outdoors and innocuous, placid settings also have underpinnings of deceit, disaster, and despair. Noir need not be confined to limited interiors, nor to dark contrasts with light -- it can happen both "in sunshine and in shadow."


 


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


 


Noir is no longer restricted to the subjective first person POV and can be felt in bucolic natural scenes 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?


The realism of the documentary sequence serves at least two purposes, it establishes the world of the movie providing information that might not be well known to every viewer in different parts of the USA (or beyond). By using a style the audience would be familiar with and respect (If not find exciting) from newsreels and propaganda films that accompanied the fictional movies at the cinema it adds to the stakes of the story being told by making it seem 'authentic' and 'important'.   It also opens up the possibility of creating psychological impact by going beyond the style and visuals of the documentary, the peaceful fields, the reality of the farm system that brings the audience their food and suggest there is something rotten underneath, by introducing a dissonant element (the illegal immigrants but also the legal poverty striken mexicans crowding against the fence to come in) to the idyllic picture it forces the audience to question the social set up or at least adds the weight of reality to the drama they are about to see.


 


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


While the docu-noir style of Mann's work (T-men or He Walked by night as well as this one) might not be as immediately psychologically strong as more expresionist works it can work in subtler ways, by grounding the movie in the real it makes deeper points about the evils hidden in the real world and doesn't allow you the disconnect of feeling these are just nightmare things happening to people who did something wrong.  It also allows powerful transitions such as when Mann's He Walked By Night shifts from a documentary proecedural approach to it's late gasmasked LAPD stormtroopers in tunnels beneath the city in the conclusion. The nightmare grows from the real world rather than being seperate from it.


 


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


 


As a sign that you can use all sorts of visual approaches? I mean it's still a John Alton movie, there will be shadows and noir visuals but there is a maturity of approach here, the early influences of noir are being forged into something aimed at telling wider stories, we aren't on the poverty row of Detour any more and we arent dealing with psychological damage to one person but to a society


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By delivering the grand via a documentary style and with a sense of urge the film anchors the small in a wider context. The panning from above underlines this. We get a sense of reality but also of dread (which the music accentuates). There will be tragedy for the individual, bordering (sorry) to fatalism. People suffer in the grand scale of life.

Maybe this anchoring of the indivudal in greater life is an early attempt in the movies thata re now defined as noir.

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The visual and voiceover establish a mood of realism in which to posit a problem affecting the [whole] U.S. The overhead shots of the beautiful California valley... flourishing with farmlands that are well-run and doing well financially encourage a sense that everything is as it should be and all-is-well. There is no sense of resentment or trouble that "braceros" provide most of the labor - in fact, they were welcomed and sought to legally cross the border.

Then the audience's comfort is challenged by showing ground-level, dark filming of people and shadows when the voiceover gives a "but" - there are some bad braceros who cross illegally and create an environment for deception and evil. And that's a fact according to the US Department of Justice!

This realism wasn't a characteristic of Hollywood's earlier noir films focused on hard-boiled detectives/stories. Imagine the opening scene of "The Letter" showing plantations in Singapore with voiceover of the number of secret mixed marriages or murders committed by ruthless and adulterous plantation owner's wives...

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...imagine voiceovers with stats to describe how many civil complaints are filed against hard-boiled, bully-ish private detectives...

Realism, such as shown in the opening scene fro Border Incident, supports the argument that film noir was a movement - the film's context is a societal issue, is somewhat cynical, and includes sex and murder...

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The opening of "The Border Incident", bdgins with giving the viewer background information regarding a specific location and subject that the film will center upon. The narration of the scene heightens the anticipation of the film by alerting the viewer that something will happen based upon the the previous information.

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After the credits, the music is dreamlike.  It almost feels like watching a propaganda newsreel.  Of course, we are looking from above, where everything seems perfect.  When I hear "monument of the vision of man" combined the music, I'm thinking about the American Dream.  This theme stays as we first meet the Braceros, who are waiting for their own little piece of the American Dream.  The tone quickly shifts from whimsical to something darker.  

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Although I've watched a fair number of movies, including several from the "Daily Doses," I still consider myself on the whole ignorant of most of the subtleties of framing, composition, lighting — in short, just about everything that isn't directly plot-related.  So I'm looking forward to learning what distinguishies film noir from other movie classifications.  Unfortunately, this clip seems to have taken me backwards.  I thought one of the hallmarks of film noir was surrealistic imagery intended to portray an interior world more than an exterior.  This clip is the exact opposite — a prosaic "documentary" about life along and on the border (although I have no idea where it heads, aside from the allusion in the description to a shift in style later in the film). 

 

This troubles me because it seems I don't have anything left on my checklist to define film noir.  It's surrealistic, except when it's not.  It's got a femme fatale, except when it doesn't.  Protagonists come to tragic ends, except when they don't.  It's a detective story, except when it's a western, a romance, or what have you.  It uses jazz to emphasize key moments, except when other music fills the bill. 

 

That's not really a complaint, but just an indication of how much I'm looking forward to the next few weeks, wherein the veil of ignorance will be parted to let in the stark shadows of noir truth.

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Although I've watched a fair number of movies, including several from the "Daily Doses," I still consider myself on the whole ignorant of most of the subtleties of framing, composition, lighting — in short, just about everything that isn't directly plot-related.  So I'm looking forward to learning what distinguishies film noir from other movie classifications.  Unfortunately, this clip seems to have taken me backwards.  I thought one of the hallmarks of film noir was surrealistic imagery intended to portray an interior world more than an exterior.  This clip is the exact opposite — a prosaic "documentary" about life along and on the border (although I have no idea where it heads, aside from the allusion in the description to a shift in style later in the film). 

 

This troubles me because it seems I don't have anything left on my checklist to define film noir.  It's surrealistic, except when it's not.  It's got a femme fatale, except when it doesn't.  Protagonists come to tragic ends, except when they don't.  It's a detective story, except when it's a western, a romance, or what have you.  It uses jazz to emphasize key moments, except when other music fills the bill. 

 

That's not really a complaint, but just an indication of how much I'm looking forward to the next few weeks, wherein the veil of ignorance will be parted to let in the stark shadows of noir truth.

It's subjective, for me they have to have a combo of various factors. Your concerns points to why they aren't a Genre, For a Western you'd have a checklist, horses, cowboy hats, Indians, cavalry, wagons, six shooters, Western landscapes. Noirs are usually a style of cinematography used to convey obsession, or alienation, or danger combined with a story of obsessed or alienated characters, quite a few of the hard boiled stories the films were based on did not have happy endings, the happy endings were often tagged on by the studios. 

 

Some Noir are set in the desert (the anti-city) they are light filled and sun baked but their plots tip them into the Noir category. Others are dark and ominous throughout, Some start out conventional then they reach a tipping point where they go into Noirsville.

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The credits of Border Incident have noir elements in them.  Starkly contrasting black and white landscape shots, strong diagonal lines, and the kind of music that lets the viewer know that trouble is coming (a deep jazz riff) are all present.  But when the credits close and the film actually starts, it could be a newsreel.  It's a stretch to find any noir elements in the clip after the credits.  Mann tries to incorporate the documentary genre into a noir film, but is not entirely successful.  Maybe the rest of the film is more "classic" noir, but the clip we have is as jarring as Anderson Cooper being introduced with, say, the opening of The Sopranos.

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One cliché associated with Film Noir is the voiceover, popularized by films like Sunset Boulevard. A character from the story narrates it, providing the audience insight into their thoughts. In this clip from Border Incident, however, the voiceover is handled differently. The narrator is not a character, he is not invested in the story, and he does not any pretentions about the fact that he is narrating a film for an audience. If anything, he is more an announcer than a narrator. Yet, the voiceover was a staple of the time, popularized by Noir, if not invented by it. While this clip has little that could identify it as Noir, it is interesting to note the small Noir elements that came from or permeated other styles.

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Just went back and re-read and re-watched this clip within the context of the video lecture (and without distractions), so my initial thoughts need some revision. I feel like the initial sweeping views of the agricultural lands, filmed on the diagonal, serves as a segue into the change of tone from realism to formalism. As the fields fade and the barbed-wire chain link fence comes into view, the same diagonals are presented to us. As the visual tone changes, so does the change in the tone of the voice-over, moving from the set-up from background on the regions economy to an ominous telling of the crimes against these migrant farm workers - particularly those who have crossed illegally, and as such, are more at-risk than those with legitimate work permits.

 

It seems as though this realism serves to shift the viewers from a common understanding of the scenes presented to place far more dangerous and far less known to them. As such, I can see it's shift as a viable tool for directors to use in heightening our situational awareness, affording them another method to bring viewers to the place they want them to go.

 
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There was almost a surreal quality to this scene: The jarring angles of the fields, canals and roads, the criss-cross pattern of the chain-link fence, are like something out of German Expressionist cinema.

Juxtaposed against them is the bland narration, like something out of an industrial or training film of the era.

The angles only become perpendicular when we see the warning sign at the end of the sequence, as if it's "back to reality."

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There was almost a surreal quality to this scene: The jarring angles of the fields, canals and roads, the criss-cross pattern of the chain-link fence, are like something out of German Expressionist cinema.

Juxtaposed against them is the bland narration, like something out of an industrial or training film of the era.

The angles only become perpendicular when we see the warning sign at the end of the sequence, as if it's "back to reality."

Beautifully said.  I saw the entire film over this weekend and your description describes what viewers are in for.

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11, BORDER INCIDENT: At the seams. 

Andre Previn's score begins with ominous jazzy horns over the credits which are juxtaposed by harmonious strings during the border canal travelogue narration giving it a sense of foreboding.

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