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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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In this week's lecture, the questions of what film noir stole and from whom is asked, and I see some elements of Cubism in this opening sequence of Border Incident.  With Cubism, an influential art form from about 1900 to 1920, the artist disassembles, views and reassembles the object from different perspectives to create a whole.  

 

In this sequence, I was impressed with the differing views of industrial farming in California: we are first told of the broader industrial Imperial Valley and its benefits, then we hear of the groups of law abiding braceros who work in the fields, and finally the illegal crossings and related suffering is brought to our attention--all different perspectives on the overall issue of large scale farming in California.  

 

This is underscored by the changes in camera movement from the beginning to the end of this sequence, as mentioned by several posters earlier.  With the exception of a speeding truck coming at an angle toward the camera/the viewer, the opening credits are imposed on static shots of arid unpopulated landscape. The camera then shows us the Imperial Valley from high above, moving diagonally to the right, following many diagonal shots of the landscape, while the narrator gives a fairly broad and perhaps widely accepted description of farming in the Imperial Valley.  

 

As the narrator mentions the many law abiding workers who wait patiently to work in the vast fields, the camera pans quickly downward and continues to the right, showing us the braceros behind not just one but two criss-crossed chain linked fences--which provide visual depth that hints at discord in this subject.  Once the bright lighting darkens and the narrator mentions the struggle and suffering of those working illegally in the fields--which the narrator tells us, to paraphrase, is something we should be informed about--the camera pans strictly left, across arid land, struggling individuals, and coming to rest on the ominous government signs.  

 

The camera work throughout this sequence seems to parallel the different views described by the narrator on the entire topic, giving us a view of the whole stemming from differing perspectives.  In this way, I can't help but wonder if Cubism is at work in this very interesting film noir sequence.

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This opening scene is very much like a documentary. If I hadn't seen the opening credits and knew this was a film noir, I would really believe it was a documentary. At the end of this scene, the music changes slightly and day changes to night and we hear about the illegal immigrants. The whole scene and narration is very realistic and gets us ready for what I'm sure is a great film noir.

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I never really thought documentaries having a noir style, but as this course continues, I'm re-evaluating how I define film noir. I can see how this particular sequence utilizes the style. The straight lines moving across the scene replicates those we see in darker, crime/heist films. In this film, it's agriculture/nature; in others, it's shadows, buildings, i-beams. The panning consists of a crane effect filmed at a 45 degree angle; a staple in film noir.

 

As for the narration, I immediately thought of L.A. Confidential, which also began in a documentary narrative style about life in California. I can't recall any other film that does this, but I will definitely be more mindful as I watch and rewatch other films noir. At this film's onset, the speakers tone created a type of a positive mood; hopeful and dream like. However, upon mention of illegal immigration, I noticed the speaker's tone dropped lower, the picture itself was darker thereby creating a contrasting mood for the viewer.Now it is more dreary, scary, even cautionary. The background music also changed with this contrast from bracero to illegal immigrant.

 

I've never seen this film, but it will be on my must watch list.

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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. 

They're not really caged behind a fence. That's the simple border fence that existed at the time of this film. The idea to me is that these are people eager to get to the other side of that fence where the work and the pay in American dollars is.

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The Border Incident… by way of Chinatown

 

 

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. 

Chinatown is about water in Los Angeles, not San Francisco so the relevance is even greater.

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

 

Voice over starts as a Newsreel style narration (similar to opening of Citizen Kane); visual is on the irrigation / farm land in Imperial Valley, shown on a diagonal across the screen. Camera continues panning over farm lands to roads, still on the diagonal, as the narration talks about the One-half Million Dollar Farming Industry, the constant need for farm workers and the source of the workers from Mexico. Then the narration switches to the farm workers: legal (showing many, many braceros waiting behind double chain link fences), to illegal, who cross over the borders between the U.S. and Mexico. As the camera went into the desert and up to the “Crossing Prohibited” sign, the lighting darkened quite a bit (much like before it’s going to rain). Perhaps it was supposed to be late in the day, near sunset, when shadows grow longer as the sky darkens. Then we see the three men running in the distance towards the foreground from the desert, who as we know by now, will be looking for work on the farms illegally.

 

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

 

That harder, grittier, edgier reporting style. I think one of the common phrases at the time was “hard hitting”. The newsreel/documentary style of that time was similar, if not much the same, as the reporting style. For film noir, it widened the subject matter, since many societal or cultural “wrongs” other than crime could be treated in the documentary style and thus attain the same shadowy undertones and ominous overtones given to the noir style.

 

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

 

It demonstrates visual and audio styles of film noir, through its use of diagonal framing shots, lighting, music meant to convey a dramatic, tense situation, and the voice over narration. It further contributes by expanding on noir locations, taking place in the farm areas of the Imperial Valley, the desert borders between California and Mexico, and use of simple, stark settings for the indoor scenes.

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

What impressed me most in the opening scene was the juxtaposition of the dramatic and suspenseful musical score and the pleasant, Travel Talk-like diction of the narrator. Visually, the wide-angle aerial view of the landscape, with its orderly vertical and horizontal lines, appeared bleak and prison-campish. Again, a juxtaposition to the narrator’s description of a fertile landscape. Conflict.

 

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

Documentary realism draws the viewer into the film like a newsreel reports true crime. It shows real places in nature that the audience can personally relate to. Rather than being limited to the seedy bars and shady cities, Film Noir could move into natural environments where real crime happens every day - not just in the usual places (clubs, casinos, underbelly of the city).

 

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

Many film noir motifs were present - the constricting cross-hatch shadows of the chain-linked fence obscuring the faces of the Mexicans. The warning signs at the border eliciting an air of the forbidden - prison-camp feeling. An important contribution of Border Incident (I’ve only viewed the clip), would be how it incorporated realism about something that actually happened..

 
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It took me a little by surprise when the tone shifted so completely over the course of the voice-over prologue. We move so quickly from an upbeat expository introduction to the lay of the land and the hard working people who bring food to our tables. From that opening gesture we cut abruptly to a particular "case" of violence and corruption about to unfold in this upbeat setting. The documentary elements of this exposition (overhead aerial pans over the landscape and the journalistic voice-over) situate us very concretely in the real world of Californian agriculture. But as the sequence moves in on human figures framed by barbed wire, chain link fences, and legal prohibitions printed on signposts, the camera gets lower and lower. From high overhead in a god's-eye view of things, we see the spectacle of social and economic forces shaping the landscape. But from closer and lower down, we see other forces at work -- malevolent forces of darkness that the lens of German expressionism taught us to watch out for. Connecting the two perspectives over the course of this opening sequence suggests that the forces of darkness are lurking everywhere in our everyday world, and that spotting them is just a matter of looking at the same old things from a different angle and at a different distance.

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The opening sequences seems to be less of an entertainment film and more of an expose’ of farm labor and immigration during the Fifties.   In doing so, the opening film establishes a sense of desperation among those workers attempting to enter the United States.  The scene where workers are clinging to the fence seems extremely poignant, signifying the rules and barriers that keep Bracero labor out.  Instead, the viewer sees the shadows of people at night risking all to crossover the border.  This seems to add to the desperation conveyed in the scene.

 

I think the documentary style is indicative of move toward realism during the later Forties and Fifties.  More and more films were being shot outside the controlled environment of the studio and into realistic settings.  This may be due to a new generation of filmmakers wanting to add more realism to their work combined with technological advances that allowed them to escape the confines of the studio.

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Mood/Atmosphere:

 

The diagonal framings of the canal and farms, echoed by the diamond shapes in the chain-link fence, establish a sense of precarious order. The voiceover narration adds credibility, and also a sense of foreboding, in a stern, straightforward style; it sounds like those in a documentary or educational short, a kind of warning. It is very different from the opening credits, but the effect is as suspenseful.

 

Use of documentary realism:

 

The realism sets up a contrast between order and disorder. The effect is unsettling; we want to buy in to and be comforted by the success of the farming valley and its neat farms and smooth canals, but we sense that beneath the calm surface moves a dark and dangerous undercurrent. The fact that the film is based on real life events makes it even more absorbing and disturbing.

 

Contribution to the film noir style:

 

The realism in Border Incident draws noir out of the archetypical dark Eastern city and into the unlikely region of sunny Southern California, a kind of “heist” in itself: noir in broad daylight. It’s clear that noir themes are not constrained to a single setting or geographical region, and that the sense of foreboding, despair, and malaise are very much intact.

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

 

In the beginning the music is really dramatic, loud and even aggressive, just like the open credits which almost „shout”. The viewer is expecting to experience something serious, maybe not pleasant. The voiceover narration itself is rather pompous, just like in regular documentaries from these days. We are strong, we are great, yes, we experience some difficulties, but surely can overcome this! It is something we can be really proud of. But not everything is ok in this perfect image... The image is getting darker – the voice is talking about those who break the law, the braceros, who are crossing the border illegally. And breaking the law brings to injustice and puts those braceros into danger. We are about to find out about these cases from the immigration office. The tension rises and we move from documentary to crime.

 

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

 

Documentary realism was always a bit preachy. It shows things that are good and make us proud. It also shows the bad things, with a certain commentary. Good or bad, black or white. This film generally has no „grey” characters, we only have 100% victims, heroes or villains, nothing in-between. And the problem is really simplified. But documentary sequence makes it more serious and credible for viewers living in different parts of the US, not necessarily close to the border. And the immigration office is a serious, reliable institution.

 

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

 

Border Incident proves that crime and terror is not something we experience in the gloomy alleys of big cities only. The injustice and suffering happens everywhere, even in the countryside.

And diagonal framings are a great way to show rural landscape, for sure. 

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The music at the opening credit is more serious than usual. No jazz, but classical. This sets a more serious tome yet the music is dramatic and strong as the camera moves across the fertile farmlands. The style of camera work reminds us of a documentary, newsreel, or travelogue. In fact, I though the latter as the narrator described the area, an area I have never visited in person. Everything seems abundant but then the camera focuses on migrant workers, far from beneficiaries of the abundance. A barren land. Nearby, Illegal immigrants. Sign saying crossing the border is prohibited. The balance - or lack of it - has been set by music, camera work, narration - all essential parts of film noir. I have not seen this film and I hope to soon and see how the imbalance works out.

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This clip starts out rather positive about the crops and the people who harvest them. The fields are clean lined and orderly the narrations describes them just as it would any other documentary. I did notice that even in an opening like this it still holds elements of noir. The high angle shots of the fields with the narration is just like many of the films we have seen already. It doesn't feel like noir to me until you see the fence with all of the hopeful and desperate people just waiting to get their papers to come over and work. The worried looks on their faces says it all.

I think having this documentary realism adds to the surprise element of what is really going on in some of these peoples lives. Some of them are waiting and doing things the right way while in contrast some are going about it illegally and like most noir they know the conseqences but do it anyway.

This is a very different way of starting a  noir film but I think it is very effective and gives the style another option.

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

Documentary realism draws the viewer into the film like a newsreel reports true crime. It shows real places in nature that the audience can personally relate to. Rather than being limited to the seedy bars and shady cities, Film Noir could move into natural environments where real crime happens every day - not just in the usual places (clubs, casinos, underbelly of the city).

 

 

I find it fascinating the way the camera angles over the geometric, agricultural landscape while the narrator is stating that the area is solely dependent on Mexican labor. Yet, the camera shows the farm workers in a long range shot and the workers appear almost like worker ants with no individuality or humanity. In the next shot we see Mexicans behind a high fence waiting for US work permits. Again, even though we see them at close range, the camera pans over their faces as a mass, they do not speak to each other and only look forward. A nameless, faceless crowd whose soul purpose is to pick "prosaic" fruits and vegetables. I love the Cinematic Realism in this clip and the use of film noir to explore a social problem that we still face today.

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Served up to the audience on a silver platter (the opening tells us that this is a MGM Silver Anniversary Film), the mood turns gritty and grim right away.  The musical theme echoes the diagonal lines that distinguish the opening.  And, there is also the shadow against the desert mountain in the opening credits underneath the second to last title that looks just like an angry migrant worker with his fist raised threateningly.  

If I had begun to watch this film after the opening credits were completed, I would have thought that I was viewing one of the many black and white educational films shown to elementary school classes in the early 1960's, when I was a student.  Factual, full of information, and even uplifting in tone, they showed us the best of the particular section of the country we were studying, with comments on what is produced indigenously, the dollar amounts of annual yield, and so on.  But.... The makers of Border Incident know how to use this sort of presentation as a noir storytelling feature.  There are no people visible in the aerial shots; nor are there any vehicles.  All is lifeless. The diagonal lines of the landscape, particularly the canal, comment on the tension to come and set it up for us, with music to match.  As far as that goes, one thinks a decade ahead to the famous "black and white" music in Psycho and the horizontal titles which constantly part on diagonal lines.

 

And so the source of the tension comes.  A double chain link fence separates hopeful migrant workers (dressed in business suits and hats for their job application process - was this realistic?) from their potential work and pay.  Then, in silhouette, illegal workers are seen crossing the border back into Mexico, while the commentator in voice-over tells us that that these mens' livelihood and their lives are now in danger.  A rough way to make a living.

So far fences predominate.  They thwart the average (Mexican) man's means of making a living. When life and income are threatened on such a basic level, the shadows and emotions of noir are back in season, ready for harvest, as the voice over references.  

 

I always thought that there was something "noir-ish" about those old newsreel type films, where there little thought to composition or matching music (if any) to subject matter.  And, there was no narrative beyond basic conveyance of facts.  But still... there was an emptiness there, no joy beyond what it is possible to produce from a field or a mine, and  no humanity beyond how many workers you can fit into a statistic.  I was more offended than bored as a child, watching these, and find myself fascinated by this cinematic attempt to fill out and explore what it means to work the land and preserve one's humanity behind a fence.  But, I digress.

Someone will doubtless find reason to comment on the renewed relevance of the problem of illegal aliens.  No such parallel can exist.  Again, I think it's still all about noir:  the struggle for existence, now lifted out of the tenements and bars of the city into a new setting, one which noir would visit again and again in the 1950's, in such films as One the Waterfront and lesser efforts.   

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This point is off topic, but I couldn't help thinking about the opening to "Casablanca."  The voiceover narration in that movie and in "Border Incident" helps set the mood and tone. Honestly, I kept thinking about Casablanca's opening rather than this one. I found it somewhat boring, until the camera cut to the desolate-looking faces of the braceros.   The voice narration sounds monotone to me, which can add to the despondent, desolate feel the movie is going to take (most likely).

**I know I'm probably opening the biggest can of worms (i.e. there's debate about whether "Casablanca" can be considered film noir or not)....but, I liked the similarities....and, it just goes to show how directors were influences by many other art forms & other movies.

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The music during the opening credits is noticeably fuller and more "excited" then we've heard before, a sort of newsreel quality, promising an exciting story. It then mellows during the calm voiceover description of the area. The diagonal aerial view point lengthens the perspective, making the picture larger and more important. The shift to the chain-link fence, topped with barb wire brings us back to reality with its prison like appearance. This adds credibility so the viewer feels this is going to be more than just a "story." There is the hint of danger for and from the illegal braceros in both directions, so we fence them in/out. (So nothing has changed!)

 

Using the documentary style opens the way for more story options, exploring more current plots, digging deeper into the darkness and presenting it "realistically."

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This opening clip with the scene of Mexican farm workers, "braceros" crowded together at the gate waiting and longing for a day of work brought to mind the scene in Elia Kazan's "On The Waterfront" where the Longshoremen also desperately seek a day worth of pay. There is such realism and stark depiction in both scenes. The Mexican farm workers as well as the Longshoremen know they are abused and exploited for their labor by the bandits that rob the "braceros" and the union that owns the longshoremen but like a dark tunnel with no visible light at the end they will continue to show up each day because for them they can't comprehend any other way of life.

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I found the music striking in this clip.  As in many films noir, the scoring is very brass heavy and dissonant.  It's the musical equivalent of the slanted camera angles and sharp dark/light contrasts.  So from the opening credits, it reads as a noir film, even without an urban setting.  The music shifts to become less dissonant as we pan over the agricultural fields, but it remains a full orchestral sound.  However, when we (as another writer pointed out) move from the upper vantage point down to the human level of the people behind the fence (the "good, law-abiding" braceros), the music shifts rather dramatically to a softer, more mellow, major sound of a very Hollywoodesque stereotype of Mexican music.  This music continues through the portion of the clip about these legal immigrants who wait their turn.  However, as soon as the shift is made to the desert shot and the narration begins to discuss the illegal braceros, the Mexican music shifts to minor -- a clear, visceral emotion shift for the viewer whether they recognize major vs minor music.  From here we have a smooth transition back to a more dissonant sound, though now tinged with the ethnically Mexican music that we've just heard.  Close your eyes and just listen to the narration and music and you'll hear that the music is doing the same kind of work that all the great camera work is doing.  Looking forward to seeing this film!

 
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The diagonal framing and aerial POV show exactly how vast the farmlands are -similar in scale to the issue itself. The music over the credits is still dramatic, but I wouldn't say it was ominous. The areas themselves look isolated due to the height of the shot. The voiceover sounds very official and detatched, sounding impersonal. The border fence itself reminds me of prison, with the barbed wire. The workers are all huddled togethet, but I have the impression if the gate opened they would file in single file as opposed to running in en masse. Whenwe flip to those entering illegally, there is an added darkness. This does seem like a documentary on what is still a very contemporary issue.

 

I am learning that film not only reflects the current state at the time of its production, but also that these themes are timeless and cyclical. This film, and many others like it, could just as easily been made today. Many of the anti heroes we have studied are similar to the ones we see on popular television shows and films.I love this.

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I love titles that tell a story. The opening seconds with the title of the movie show barbed wire. Where is this? It's not going to be a romantic comedy at the border between Canada and the U.S., that's for sure. The rest of the scenes in the title sequence establish more: fields, mountains. This could be an adventure film, but by the time we get to the producer's name and the director's we have the harsh shadows of noir--but, we are not in an urban environment. Is it Film Noir?

 

Before taking this class, I wouldn't have classified this film (based on the clip only) as noir. My idea of Film Noir took place in an urban landscape,and while it might have some harsh daylight scenes in the country or suburbs for contrast, it wouldn't open like this. Moving from the titles into the first scene, I'd still be doubting its noir credentials. It's an omniscient narrator, it opens in a natural scene and it's from an all-too-omniscient POV.

 

But I'm more open-minded, now, or at least trying to be. From my own personal noirish POV, I still believe that Film Noir sets you off-balance. That certainly happens here in the natural setting of what appears to be a documentary-like opening when the film jars you as it borrows noir techniques of angles instead of straight-on shots of farm land and irrigation canals. It then belabors the point with the incessant lines of furrowed fields. Even the rounded trees are in straight lines. Then the shots of the Braceros in their chain link prison enclosures, waiting for escape, that is, to be chosen to work. If it were a documentary, the Braceros might be smiling and the voice-over would be speaking of the cooperation between countries. The chain link would not be topped with barbed wire.

 

Then, the shadowy night scene. More barbed wire strung across the screen, the warning about those who cross illegally, and the directional signs. Interestingly, and adding another touch of the era's realism to the scene, the sign pointing to the U.S. is in English only while the sign pointing to Mexico is written in both English and Spanish. Is that ominous enough for noir or is it just an informational sign?

 

Still, while I can tell it definitely is not a documentary and can see that the titles and opening scene borrow elements of noir from the music, the shadows, the angles, what appears to be desperation on some of the faces, the fact that Anthony Mann directed and John Alton was cinematographer, and what the voice over says it is, is it Film Noir? I'm thinking I have to reserve judgment until I see the whole movie.

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Very clever introduction, and strange coming from an MGM movie, thanks to Mr.Schary. Right from the beginning, the director wants to inform us about the irregular conditions in wich most of the mexican workers are hired. We are guided to see during the first aerial images only diagonal lines The screen is completely crossed with them. In the fields we see the grooves, the endless plantations, some irrigation canals, and then, when we got to see the first men involved, when it's the turn for those workers to appear, they do it behind a fence. Those previous diagonal lines that appeared seconds ago, are transformed into the wired fence with the same skewed patterns. People jailed in more ways than one can imagine, traying to gain their trip to a job. Impressive first sight.

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Following up on what JulesRS said about this opening being a bit like Casablanca, I would agree.  In a way the music follows a similar trajectory in that in Casablanca we get very little Arabic or middle-Eastern sounding music in the film (only in The Blue Parrot), but as the opening gets closer and closer to Casablanca itself, Steiner throws in the stereotypically Arabic music to sonically identify where we're heading.  This technique is used here with the Mexican music for the braceros.  (BTW, the whole opening of Casablanca is worth watching to hear how the music shifts multiple times as we move from the globe, to war-torn Europe, to the trudging masses trying to escape, to France - the Marseilles plays just as Steiner's name comes up on the title card - and then the Arabic music.)

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"Someone will doubtless find reason to comment on the renewed relevance of the problem of illegal aliens. No such parallel can exist. Again, I think it's still all about noir:"

 

Bruno Anthony, I do see a huge similarity. Even if the similarity is only that 65 years on, "the problem of illegal aliens" continues. canadians are not immune from having few if any solution to our social issues.

 

As for noir and the real world, Cornered, one of my favourites, dealt with residual justice from WW2. A number of other films of the period, noir to the bone, were fed and nourished by unresolved issues flowing out of that war.

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Photograph of John Alton is excellent... even though it is a natural environment... the image of the border, and the fence of barbed gives a touch of drama to the film, close to the language of the noir


John Alton worked in the 1930s in Argentina, collaborating in the realization of many films in the early Argentine cinema

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