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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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Having this film start out as a documentry made it not feel like a film noir to me. Not until if showed the people at the fence. That's when it made me feel like a noir story was coming. The documentry feeling was a great way to start the movie by giving some background info. 

 

Thanks for your comment here, especially about "not feel like a film noir to me." Part of the reason I picked this as today's Daily Dose is to push against our established expectations of film noir. Other parts of this film are extremely "noirish" in the ways we have come to expect. But part of the greatness of the noir style is that it is more than urban jungles, shadows, and fedoras. It is a worldview that spoke to the anxieties of its age. And filmmakers would use whatever style necessary to make that worldview come alive.

 

I personally like a lot of the films noir that are set in borderland areas of the US (the Hitch-Hiker and Touch of Evil, for example) because film noir dealt powerful with topics that involved people on the margins of society. And by placing stories on the border, you have a setting that dramatically ripe for action as people are moving in a zone of surveillance, on the edge spaces of countries. Thanks for your post!

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After watching this clip from "Border Incident" I played it back again imagining I was in the theatre. I most likely saw the poster outside the theatre and have an idea what the movie is about having read a critic review and/or seen the trailer.

 

I realize almost as soon as the narrator begins talking, that he speaks outside the film because he sounds like a reporter talking directly to me- not as a character in the film about to guide me through it.

 

Narrators in film noir normally are characters in the movie and they talk in the first person- we see the movie through their eyes- its their story. Here the narrator sounds more like an instructor informing us and/or giving us background information in order to improve our understanding of the film we are about to see. the are not part of the story.

 

in this clip, the information is presented so well and in such a manner as to make one believe that we are ready to see the drama.  

 

The aerial camera gives us a view we are not accustom to. I remember seeing World War II footage taken from the sky and how it felt like I was an eyewitness. Another example of outside influence on film noir.

 

Thanks for this post. I love that you were writing about what your sensing as if you were in a movie theater. When this film was released, this opening would have felt a little bit like a newsreel they used to show along with cartoons and sing-alongs in classical exhibition practices. But the newsreel feel (not done as operatically, as in a film like Citizen Kane) allows us to quickly digest essential story information without the screenwriter having to have Ricardo Montalban explain braceros or the setting of the film. I think if you see the rest of this film, you will appreciate Mann's choice here to condense the history lesson into a zippy 2:30 minutes. And I personally love the aerial camera - Alton was having a field day, finding dazzling geometric patterns in the landscape, and I hope you noticed that he kept the frame at a slight diagonal (this is a world that is in flux, it is tilting, almost ready to fall). Alton knew how to make a commentary that is both beautiful and understated at the same time. 

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

A: The introduction starts out as a Southern California agricultural history lesson and then the narration changes to reveal that this is going to be a story about Mexican workers victimized by unscrupulous people.

 

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

A: It adds a sense of immediacy (you are there!), that hooks your interest almost immediately.

 

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

A: The voice-over in Border Incident is like the flashback narrative that is a popular device in many films noirs. The opening scene starts out as a birds-eye view of Southern California, then progressively moves “down to earth.” The opening starts out as an overview, but ends with a focus on the boarder, where we assume the action will take place.The introduction is the set-up for the entire movie, which is typical of many films noir.

 

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In this opening sequence, which didn't seem all that noir-ish to me, I was instantly reminded of one of my favorite movies, The Naked City. It may have been mentioned already, and if so I apologize. In that movie, which I believe is classified as a "police procedural," (and also Noir) the producer Mark Hellinger speaks to the audience, describing the city, it's inhabitants, showing the films stars at home as the day begins, and exposes the dark but inevitable experiences in a city that never really sleeps. I have not seen Border Incident, but the intro does it's job of hooking the viewer, as did Hellinger's intro. It was released the year after The Naked City, I think, so I wonder if that intro style was copied for this movie. To me this intro shows the everyday life of the farm, the bounty that is produced for the US, but then hints at the seedy underbelly of that world. Everything is in light until the illegal crossings are mentioned, and the screen gets darker. It leaves one wondering what the incident is!

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The opening score for Border Incident creates an atmosphere or musical impression of a powerful drama, signaling the audience of an upcoming tense action story only to be given over to voice-over narration.  This is a very calm and matter-of-fact narrative in a documentary style much like the educational films used to enlighten the public in schools and for civic organizations at the time, on topics such as driver safety and public health issues.  Audiences in this time period were well exposed to documentary films.  1936 Reefer Madness or Tell Your Children comes to mind, or the Why We Fight series (1942-45) during World War II which also gave John Huston and Frank Capra first hand experience documenting American's involvement  in the war while expanding their craft with film and editing techniques.  By adding the documentary style approach to introduce his film, Anthony Mann taps into a more realistic film experience for his audience as well as  making a statement that this is more than just an entertainment venue, this affects us all. 

 

This was an important contribution to the film noir style by guiding (or strong-arming) the audience to follow a certain point of view and ramping up the importance/reality of the story.  What better technique to open a story in a film than having it play in theaters like true life, current events.  Added to that a voice-over narrative telling you what to think or where to focus in this story on the screen.  These were just new tools added to the evolution of the film noir style.    

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In this opening sequence, which didn't seem all that noir-ish to me, I was instantly reminded of one of my favorite movies, The Naked City. It may have been mentioned already, and if so I apologize. In that movie, which I believe is classified as a "police procedural," (and also Noir) the producer Mark Hellinger speaks to the audience, describing the city, it's inhabitants, showing the films stars at home as the day begins, and exposes the dark but inevitable experiences in a city that never really sleeps. I have not seen Border Incident, but the intro does it's job of hooking the viewer, as did Hellinger's intro. It was released the year after The Naked City, I think, so I wonder if that intro style was copied for this movie. To me this intro shows the everyday life of the farm, the bounty that is produced for the US, but then hints at the seedy underbelly of that world. Everything is in light until the illegal crossings are mentioned, and the screen gets darker. It leaves one wondering what the incident is!

 

Great point! I use The Naked City example in my lecture, and Mann and Alton's intro is exactly in the same tradition. This is the rise of postwar realism and documentary-like storytelling in commercial Hollywood films. The audience after the War was interested in seeing more realistic stories after the horrors of World War II, and Hollywood catered to that appetite. 

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Like many other folks have said, the narration reminds me of those educational films we used to watch. (Yes, I'm old---and yes, I was, at one time, a teacher---but started teaching long after these types of films were popular. ;-)

 

But I digress...

 

The narration is one thing, but the fly-over cinematography really helped set the tone that this film was going to be something objective, informative and probaby not fictional or at least told in a literary form. The light of day, the narration highlighting what the viewer is seeing all help make the opening something that gets the audience to understand that the film will be one of information.

 

Although I haven't seen the film yet, I did notice that the copyright was 1949. So, the 'police procedural' films seem to me to have started in the 1950s. So, we are on the cusp of that era. "The Naked City", "He Walked by Night" and "Dragnet" (radio series) all happened in that 1948-1949 era.

 

Film Noir, with its 'borrowing' from art, music, photography, literature and now another type of film, seems to add more variety and creativity from this addition.

 

 

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1. )  The use of visual design and voiceover narration give the opening to Border Incident a feeling of impending doom.  The film begins on a happy, positive note as the camera glides over farmland and migrant workers working in the fields. As the scene progresses,  the narrators tone turns ominous and he reveals that not all migrant workers cross the U.S. legally. What started out as a picturesque and panoramic view of the Mexican/Texas border ends as  tight, almost claustrophobic shot of migrant workers penned in behind a fence. The mood and atmosphere begin as positive almost lofty; the film looks and sounds like many period documentaries and newsreels made post-World War II. many of these documentaries focused exclusively on the tremendously expansive growth the U.S. was experiencing post-WWII. The mood begins that way, but the viewer is deceived and the film noir influence takes over and we are pulled from the wonderful vistas of farmland to the grimy world of migrant struggling to enter the country. 

 

2.)   Documentary realism adds to the film noir style because the documentary look and feel of this scene adds to the grittiness of the story.  With documentary realism,  film noir was not just false scripts written in Hollywood   --- the stories were grounded in some degree of reality.

 

3. Border Incident can be considered an important contribution to the film noir style because this is one of the first examples of a hybrid of a documentary and a film noir story.

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The opening of Border Incident introduces us to a landscape created by humans to "improve" on nature. We can divert torrents of water and make the desert bloom. We can grow tons of produce and have our "neighbors to the South" do the heavy lifting. But, despite the "march of time" narration, what the musical score indicates is that there's something not quite right in this setup. Some consequences we still can't control.

We see the fence obscure the faces of the migrant workers in almost the same grid patterns that formed the farms and canals. And then the sky darkens, we see the desert at dusk and those signs warning "prohibited," "forbidden." 

I'm not a big fan of documentary-style noir, but this clip showed me what a shock a movie like this must have been to an audience who started out seeing that elegant "Silver Anniversary" engraving from MGM!

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The intro is full of contrasts, which provide tension or release:  The dramatic music during the title sequence followed by the matter-of-fact narrative (which brought to mind a TV show from the 50's called Industry on Parade), the farm land and fruit trees located in a desert region, the open and sparsely populated landscape shot from a distance vs the close up of humanity crowded at the border fence, the danger sign out in the middle of nowhere.

 

I looked up All American Canal, and found that it is considered by some to be The Most Dangerous Body of Water in the US.  Sounds Noir to me.

Definitely torn from the "Industry on Parade" playbook! Love your photo, BTW, it made me laugh--'50s angst a la "Mad Men"! 

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Well, I don’t really see a lot of noir here. There are a few things. There is a lot of black and white contrast in the aerial shots and in the fence shot. The credit music is very dramatic and the use of a narrator is also a noir device. It also features desperate blue collar workers. But I think all of that is stretching things significantly. The narrator is an omniscient narrator, not a first-person narrator. The scene is rural, not urban, and rather than a confined area, it is wide open. Yes, the credit music is dramatic, but the music under the narration is triumphant. Yes, the some of the braceros cross illegally and are victims of crime, but most, we are told, wait their turn and contribute to the “flourishing garden.” Most of all, rather than being thrown into the action, the viewer is a dispassionate observer. Does the documentary /newsreel approach make it seem more real? Not to me. I think newsreels are jingoistic and highly edited to express a point of view. They talk to the viewer rather than involve the viewer.  Even if that’s more “realistic,” I don’t see it as a noir device. No, I think it’s a stretch to see noir here.

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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

 

 

Nice information on Alton in Argentina. Perhaps his work there sharpened his sensibilities in regard to the complex relationships shared among North, Central, and South Americans.

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Perhaps because I haven't seen this film and was expecting a more standard opening to a dramatic film, this sequence took me aback.  First, I couldn't help thinking that nothing had changed, only gotten worse in terms of the immigration situation and perhaps exploitation of the farm workers.  I found it ironic that the first part extolled the engineering feets of the irrigation but then it became clear that despite the engineering, back breaking labor was still needed to get the "food to our dinner tables"--whose dinner tables?  The connection to film noir is that the characters of film noir are working class; film noir doesn't paint pretty pictures and deals in a type of realism (although this documentary-style opening is realism with a little propaganda thrown in).  The set up tells us there will be crime involved, and noir and crime are inseparable.  The sharp contrast between the U.S. and Mexican sides is another film noir characteristic--contrast.

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—What do you think documentary realism adds to the evolution and increased range of the film noir style, and how is the opening of Border Incident an important contribution to the film noir style?

Documentary realism gives any story grittiness. Audiences tend to believe that what they’re seeing in a documentary is true, even though documentary film is edited and shows us only what it wants to show us, and even if the narrator tells us that what audiences are seeing is a composite bases on many factual stories. The opening of Border Incident reminds me of The Naked City (both the film [1948] and the television show [1958–1963]) and even Route 66 (another television show [1960–1964]). Instead of a camera hovering over the city (as in The Naked City), successive shots in Border Incident lead the audience into the story and complement the voiceover narration.

 

Good call!  Likewise Broderick Crawford's Highway Patrol series (1955-59) successfully used a documentary styled opening identifying the organization and the service it provided.  Accompanied by serious theme music, Art Gilmore provided an even more serious narration "Whenever the laws of any state are broken, a duly authorized organization swings into action...".  You know you are in for some real action! 

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

 

You are so right. Thanks for the correction; I need to brush up on this favorite. 

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Film noir movies were not afraid to tackle social issues of the time, Border Incident being a prime example. In a way, you could call it a docudrama, both realistic and cinematic at the same time. Realism is a hallmark of the noir style, and it would make sense that a documentarian opening could be incorporated into a noir movie.

 

film noir pushed the boundaries of film making and story telling. So not so surprising to see a movie like Border Incident pushing boundaries and crossing the borders of conventional film making.

 

I think what makes film noir continue to resonate with viewers is that all the contextual influences of the time...art, music, literature, style...created the most exquisite form of expression. Each element was at its finest...it wasn't that the story was so-so, but the acting was superb, or that the direction was fantastic but the music failed to match it...it was that all aspects were superlative and blended into the noir form, each aspect on an equivalent, heightened level.

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At first glance, the opening of "Border Incident" has the feel of a documentary or newsreel, but then I noticed something interesting.

 

We first see the long straight lines of the canal and the highway, then these cross, beginning to form right angles, and very large quadrilaterals or rectangles, so large we can't see them all in the shot and may not be aware of them.

 

But then we dissolve to shots of the large fields, and now the geometric shapes, the rectangles and squares, become more distinct. Further dissolves and we can now see the shapes and angles in the crops themselves, tighter perhaps.

 

Another dissolve, and the lines we have been seeing are barbed wire and the squares have become the tight patterns of chain link fence. The fence is menacing, confining, and though the narration tells the migrants we see are the law abiding ones, awaiting legal passage, it hard not to see this as threatening, to them and to us, like a prison?

 

But we dissolve yet again, and the lines, the barbed wire, are not as tight and confining as what we have just seen. This area is more open, but darker as well.

 

The documentary treatment is related to a contemporary trend that began about a year before with "The Naked City" and relates to the thought that if we are telling gritty realistic stories, we should tell them in a realistic manner, in real locations (and these elements, together or separately, would become more and more prevalent). But of course it also harks back to the Warner Bros. social dramas of the 1930s. But even this tend to realism would just be a modification of the dark formalistic work of the first noir pictures.

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Daily Dose #11: Border Incident

 

The overhead shot with the documentary style narration makes me feel like I'm watching a newsreel instead of a film.

 

The quote, "Nature never waits when crops are ready, they must be harvested," illustrates the pressure the workers endured. The overhead shot that introduces the workers appears to show just tiny spots on the screen dehumanizing them simply as labor workers and not much else. When you do see their faces behind the barbed wire, they appear exhausted, helpless and in fear.

 

The dark shadows that appear right after illustrate the dangers of what goes on behind the farm industry; there's a very dark and complex story lying there. The pan ends at the "Crossing prohibited, United States territory" sign, the photography is dark but when the shot ends at the sign, above it you see light representing hope for the workers.

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


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


 


The mood here is one of realism -- I know I'm going to see something that actually happened, or is happening, like its predecessor, The Naked City.  The panoramic shots are breathtaking, but as the narrator tells the backstory, the visuals change, i.e., at first what we're seeing is about someTHING, but as the narrator continues we begin to see that the real story is about someONE, about people - and that's when it evolves into the grittiness of film noir with which we are so familiar.  The difference here has everything to do with locale; this is the "great outdoors," as opposed to urban streets and alleys, thus showing that criminal behavior and underworld connections happen everywhere, you can't really escape it, which expands the scope of film noir.


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I have never heard of this film before.  I am very intrigued.  I love the old 40s and 50s documentary shorts that TCM will show occasionally.  That is exactly what this reminded me of.  The aerial views of the farm land, the close up shots of the Braceros, and the narrator really made for a documentary feel for the beginning of this film. 

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Good call!  Likewise Broderick Crawford's Highway Patrol series (1955-59) successfully used a documentary styled opening identifying the organization and the service it provided.  Accompanied by serious theme music, Art Gilmore provided an even more serious narration "Whenever the laws of any state are broken, a duly authorized organization swings into action...".  You know you are in for some real action! 

I like the comparison to Highway Patrol, quite frankly, due to its documentary style (I still manage to catch repeats of it!), which I felt was immensely effective. I liked watching it even as a child (I admit I didn't always know what the episodes were about), but I appreciated that the plots didn't pull any punches, which I think is why I like film noir.  The viewer is being given insight into a world that in the 40s and 50s, in particular, you knew existed, but was rarely exposed on screen.  

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Perhaps because I haven't seen this film and was expecting a more standard opening to a dramatic film, this sequence took me aback.  First, I couldn't help thinking that nothing had changed, only gotten worse in terms of the immigration situation and perhaps exploitation of the farm workers.  I found it ironic that the first part extolled the engineering feets of the irrigation but then it became clear that despite the engineering, back breaking labor was still needed to get the "food to our dinner tables"--whose dinner tables?  The connection to film noir is that the characters of film noir are working class; film noir doesn't paint pretty pictures and deals in a type of realism (although this documentary-style opening is realism with a little propaganda thrown in).  The set up tells us there will be crime involved, and noir and crime are inseparable.  The sharp contrast between the U.S. and Mexican sides is another film noir characteristic--contrast.

You said a mouthful. The opening does take one aback, because in my case, anyway, it's the MGM open and I've come to associate it with lighter fare (like musicals, which I appreciate, as well) - but in short order you find out that this is about immigration, farm workers, etc., which is actually quite contemporary. The pictures aren't pretty, despite the locale, and the narration tells that crime is an integral part of those pictures.  Sad and scary, but true.

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I'm on the fence (pun intended) about this opening sequence of Border Incident and its qualifying as film noir. On one hand, the music, the locale, and the somewhat upbeat narration seem to sway away from what we've come to know film noir is all about. On the other hand, the end of the narration--the discussion of the illegals and their struggles with the bandits--makes a promise of a somewhat darker story to come.

 

In terms of the realism displayed here, there's perhaps nothing darker and more disturbing than the real human experience, and I think that's something that influences much of noir. You don't need all of the trappings of formalism to tell a gritty tale. Following WW2 and a general sense of pessimism, it makes sense that filmmakers of the era would turn to the reality that befell regular, everyday Americans as inspiration for their dark and twisted stories.

 

On a side note, I found it interesting that the aerial shots of the fields--with the dots and rows of crops--somewhat resemble an American flag.

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It's also worthy of note that, beyond the obvious difference in style, the opening of Border Incident, like that of some other noir films done in a documentary realism, also differs from more Expressionistic, hardboiled noir in the way it pulls you into the story.  

 

In stark contrast to the way many, perhaps most, Expressionistic, hardboiled noir stories usually draw you in --- with a seemingly innocuous thread to pick or breadcrumb to follow, a harmless assignment taken to fill time or empty pockets, that soon becomes something infinitely more devious and dangerous --- documentary realism in noir often begin with the bigger picture, often fittingly via aerial POV's of landscapes that set the time and place and then gradually descend beneath the surface to reveal unseemly and sinister forces.  

 

Curiously, one starts small and expands to encompass ever-more-prevalent darkness, corruption, greed and excess. while the other starts big and progressively telescopes down, like a dentist's drill, into the seedy and sinister pulp that lurks beneath the surface.  

 

Documentary realism frames the story in a journalistic way, as if an expose.   Border Incident begins in this way, starts with the big picture, from an aerial view, showing us canals, plush fields and thick groves that feed a nation, and then begins its descent into the murky, dangerous and corrupt way that food actually gets to our tables.  

 

It's an effective technique, that, kind of like a David Lynch film, gradually reveals the sordid underbelly of a world we thought we knew but don't.         

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