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


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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.

It was my impression that "Border Incident" was among the films that contributed to the classic noir, but not shot in that style.

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I agree that the credits at the opening of the film seem to lead us to the feeling that this is a noir film. Stark contrasts of the lettering against the background shots and the foreboding musical direction by Andre Previn. Then there's a break from that to the mood and atmosphere that is represented by the documentary style filming with long shots and an authoritative narrator. The words that come to mind are fact, truth, law, order, organization. Each geometrical shape of the land and the lines form borders and parameters. Trees like a pegboard giving us orderly content. Everything in its place. And eventually, everyone. Borders of fencing and geometric confinement hold back the people.

 

The fact that noir has eased itself into another genre tells me that this style was a desired style by more than just crime stories. Anything can be twisted to give a foreboding feeling or a sense of misdirection. I like that it challenges the intellectual in us not to assume anything on first viewing. We become cynical, choosing what to believe not by what we see or hear, but by what we feel. Trusting your gut becomes a virtue in film noir. 

 

I think that this film clip leads us to see how the "art" of noir can be applied to different genres. If it works in detective stories, I wonder what it can do for a documentary style film or a historical drama? I think we can believe that nothing is sacred. Noir is contradiction.

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For me, the diagonal lines of the landscaping and fencing indicated film noir immediately. This was contrasted though, with the narrator educating us about the farming industry and the dependence on Mexican farm workers. Yes this seemed like a documentary. But at the end of the clip, the narrator described the danger they face and that pushed over into the film noir category once again. I intend to watch this film!

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I really liked the juxtaposition of the bland narrative with the jazzy music. It tells us that although the film is set in the real, modern day, world, it will also be exciting and dramatic. The opening reminded me of the opening to the old Dragnet radio show (and later the t.v. show) where Jack Webb would establish that the scripts were based on true stories. I felt like the transition from aerial shots to shots of the workers waiting behind the fence took us from the abstraction of fields and farming in general, right down to the specifics of what the film is about - the men who do the work. This is a transition which shows up often in Noir - as in the introduction to Night and the City, or the first scenes of Sunset Boulevard where we start with the flashing police lights and move in closer until we see the body in the pool.

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I think the documentary style establishes a sense of realism that the viewer can identify with; it's a tool that may make the story we are about to see be more relevant to us.  What you are about to see is based on fact, not fiction.  It's not just movie escapism, and it will seem more significant to us because its linked to who we are at a national level and how we live. The documentary style connects the viewer to the story.

 

It only takes a few words towards the end of the clip to tell us that we may not immediately know who are the bad guys and who are not, on either side of the border, that things may not be as they seem. The realism of the documentary style makes this more frightening - and engaging.

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On the one hand, this really seems like the "newsreel" at the beginning of 'Citizen Kane' with that "NEWS ON THE MARCH!" voiceover, tangentially related to the images we see floating in front of us.

 

But--speaking of tangents--the images insistence on the diagonal becomes such a dominant motif that it's as if the whole world is slanted, off-kilter. There's an angle to this story.

There are a lot of contrasts in the last shot. Instead of seeing it from a high (bird's eye) angle, looking down on the fields, we see the sign from a low angle, looking up. The camera movement is also the opposite of the other shots in the montage; mostly the shots of the fields are sweeping left-to-right, even as the shots themselves change. Someone else on the board (Brian M) observed that with the shot of the signpost, "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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If this were all a viewer knew about Border Incident, it would be almost impossible to tell whether the movie was fiction, a documentary, or some combination of both. The narration behaves in exactly the way it would if this were just a travelogue, although there's a hint of menace in the way the narrator says that "most" of the workers obey the laws of both countries.

 

This is a good way to ease the viewer into noir themes. By 1949, everyone knew what to expect from a movie where men in fedoras cast black shadows against alleys. Realistic scenes of farmlands, however, set the movie in a completely different setting, which will presumably make the inevitable deaths and betrayals (I haven't seen the movie; I'm just guessing)  that much more potent.

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Others are far ahead of me on this but I did find the shift jarring - from the prosaic views of canals and fields and crops all nicely lined up and organized (and the diagonal view is interesting, for sure) to the crowded workers behind the high wire fence.  The narrator blandly intones that these workers are very necessary to grow the crops then darkly warns that some of them enter illegally and then meet with violence.  The shot of the sign prohibiting crossing the border reinforces this warning.

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The introduction of "The Border Incident" is much like one of those documentary film strips we watched in school back in the day.  The shots of the canal, diagonal fields and crops tells the viewer that something is "off" even as the narrator drones on about the "great agricultural empire" (whose empire?) that is the southern California farming industry.

 

We are high above it all so who knows what's going on down on the ground?  Well, the narrator tells us when the scene shifts from the overhead nature shot of the canal and surrounding fields to the top of a barbed wire fence and the tops of the migrant workers' heads.  They look like prisoners in a camp.  The narrator talks about the fine, upstanding Mexicans who come to the fields to work, then he tells us about the others, the illegals that cross the border under cover of night who are neither fine nor upstanding--they are robbers and thieves who prey upon each other and anyone else they can get at near the border.

 

The shot of the crossing is dark, foreboding and barren, a stark contrast to the bright, welcoming and lush fields in the beginning.  The viewer's sense of doom gets stronger as the narrator drones on about the dangers and violence that is a part of the workers' lives.

 

The narrator then tells us that the story is a "composite of factual information" supplied by the DOJ, so it feels like a propaganda short and the shot of the border signs underscores the dread felt by the viewer as the story is set up.

 

We see the pristine, orderly fields from above but when we get down on the ground we see the dirt and sweat that goes into making those fields so orderly.  After that we go further down and see the grime and violence that the dirt and sweat is standing on.  It's like a pyramid, the tip is perfection but the bottom is grimy. 

 

And that is very, very noir.

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Re visiting these classic noir films 

 

On the case of Postman always rings twice

 

The beauty of both stars will shine forever more as Poe stated..................

 

 

On the case of the Out of the Past

 

The epitome of noir finishes like fine wine............long and lasting.

 

 

The case of Act of Violence

 

post war melodrama with great noir opening that states camera isn't all.

 

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

This first three minutes run just like a classic documentary: we have the voice over describing a situation and a camera that registers that element with real and vivid images. There's no acting here yet, and almost all shooting is just focused on landscapes. The importance documentaries have on film noir goes right that way: audiences wanted to see more from 'real life', real characters, real situations. People are not educated and polite all the time and fairy tales just happen on books. All american culture were on that mood at the post-war period, and the preominence of noir style is just a great example of that. Once documentaries tend to be the expression of reality, they are going towards the public wishes at that time.


Also interesting to see how the cinematography is registered here. The shapes and tones from the farms carry themselves a great influence from German expressionism once again, and that's just really clear by the camera angles and choices.


Finally, it is interesting to see how MGM, a high-standard studio, was dealing with the rise of noir at the audience.


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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 music moves from epic and dramatic with the titles into calm and pastoral, rising to serious again at the end. The voice over is exactly like a documentary or newsreel it seems to tell us this is real, true to life and that it's important for us to know and be concerned about the subject. Visually it is being impressed upon us how vast the expanse of fields are. and then the narrator tells us about the threat to this tranquil symbiotic world. The mood starts pleasantly but grows more serious to the point of foreboding.

 

I think documentary realism adds to film noir's evolution and increased range by increasing the sense of gravitas, especially useful for telling a story based on fact. It makes it more difficult to dismiss and brush off as "only a movie". It is eyeopening to the notion that the real world contains such evils as are found in noir films. Documentaries have a sense of athority like newspapers, we assume they must be true and develop a blind spot for possible hidden agendas. But they can also be used to show several different points of view and be more detatched about letting you make up your own mind.

 

The opening of Border Incident contributes to film noir style by showing that it can be more than just an engaging story stylishly told, it can also teach moviegoers something about the greater world and about how different and yet similar our life experiances are.

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I have some lingering questions about the use of “documentary style” in Border Incident and other films as well.  Upfront, let me be say that I haven’t seen any documentary films from pre-1946, so I can’t fully comment on their influence.  Unlike the influence of German Expressionism in films like M we haven’t seen Daily Dose clips of documentary films from this era to comment on their influence on film noir.

 

I also don’t know if using found footage and newsreel style voice over constitutes a documentary film or is more of a “newsreel” style approach a la Citizen Kane.  I wouldn’t liken viewing newsreel footage of some actual event or watching the evening news footage of some real event to watching a documentary film.  A shot of a train arriving at a station that wasn’t set up is footage of a train but it’s not a documentary film.

 

In general, I think there is very little difference between dramatic films and documentary films.  Both contain main characters or protagonists.  Both have a story problem that the protagonist confronts.  Both can either be a heroic three-act structure or both can be a portrait of the protagonist.  Over the course of the film audiences will (or will not) care about the actions and outcome of the main character.  Over the course of the film, the main character will reveal themselves to the point where the audience deeply understands who the main character is.  Both films have the potential power to alter the audience’s feelings towards the subject matter.

 

I don’t think documentary films necessarily own the “truth.”  At their best, dramatic films create a completely believable reality.  Films that begin with, “based on a true story” don’t necessarily pack more believability.  Dramatic and documentary films are considered well done because we care about what happens to the characters.  If they’re bad it’s because we don’t care.

 

-Mark

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The documentary style film work with these broad overhead shots from the opening of, "Border Incident" give it a very dry, sober, matter-of-fact atmosphere. This could be an educational film- the voice over seeks to inform us of facts. Use of the documentary style served to allow film makers to tell a different kind of story than we had previously seen in film noir, showing us that not all racketeers wear well-cut suits and hang out at swanky night spots. Here we are in the farmlands and racketeering is in full sway. This unique approach to the opening helped to expand the catalogue of material on which a film in the noir genre could be based.

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From the voice-over narrative we are made to feel like we are being provided with informative information about our food supply & resources. Yet, we are also made to feel the the despair of the farm workers who maintain and supply our food.A large aerial view of the vast agricultural land allows us to get a sense of the tedious and laborious work endured by those who work these Imperial Valley farmlands and the troubles they encounter seeking better employment opportunities in order to provide for their families.

 

Documentaries add a realistic perspective.They often utilize the voice over narrative or a narrator to explain what has previously transpired, so that the audience maybe informed of prior information so that they are better equipped with knowledge and understanding of what is about to occur, as they transition into the next scene, in the film noir.

 

The opening can be considered an important contribution to the film noir because of its music and visuals of the mountains/hilly desert terrain. We get the feeling that the passage through these areas are dark,dangerous and scary. A border patrol lurking above a large hilly area appears ready to take action at the first sign of trouble. The sprawling aerial view of the valley looks hot and uninviting ---any attempts made to cross it is not designed for the weak and weary (night or day). These images,music and narrative come together to set the tempo for the mood and ambiance of the clip.

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The documentary-style clip is reminiscent of travelogue shorts narrated by James A. Fitzpatrick, known as “Voice of the Globe.”

 

The mood at the beginning starts positively discussing the details of agricultural accomplishments of the Imperial Valley, located in South California, and its critical importance to the US. This is made easy from the aerial “Bird’s-Eye” shots of the upward, diagonal framing of the valley, which look pristine and majestic and above.

 

The scene becomes and the music becomes solemn just as the “border” is mentioned. It is represented by a claustrophobic fence with crowds of braceros cramped behind it, dominating the screen and, unlike the valley, making downward diagonal lines in the opposite direction.

 

When the illegal braceros are mentioned, the visuals shift to nighttime of the desolate desert beyond the fence, then panning to sign saying “Crossing prohibited.” This indicates the risks and dangers these braceros beyond the border and authorities, including banditry, theft, starvation, etc. 

 

Eddie Muller describes noir as “suffering with style.” Many well-known film noir tend to be fictional stories based off true-to-life themes of the early 20th century, so a formalist style doesn’t feel out of place even when confronted with reality onscreen.

 

However, Documentary realism strips noir of even this formalist “style,” to show a more, gritty austere approach emphasizing the authenticity of real-life problems and stories. In this case, Border Incident is based off “factual information” from the “Immigration and Naturalization Service of the United States Dept. of Justice.” So the documentary manner is very appropriate here, making Border Incident, alongside more “formal,” romanticized noir, such Laura, The Big Sleep, Out of the Past, etc.   

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