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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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I read a comment about the newsreel feel giving a "torn from the headlines" feel to the coming story, allowing us an easier emotional buy in. George Carlin observed that news is more impactful the closer it is geographically to us. I think the same psychology is at work when we are more invested in a film story "based on actual events".

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The voiceover narration give us a sense of realism. There is also the example of how other forms of art are used with the beautiful panoramic shots of the mountains and landscapes. It reminded me of an Ansel Adams photograph. The narration tells us that illegal Mexican workers are being victimized as they go back to their homes but I think it's the visual of the final shot that gives us a feeling of film noir as the shot of the desert pans to a beautiful darker shot of the mountains and clouds and finally the forbidding signs on the foreground similar to the opening sequence of M, that gives us a feeling that something sinister is about to unfold.

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We are moving from a very broad view of that part of the country, to a narrower and narrower perspective, like a pyramid. i, too, am happy that the diagonal framing was mentioned.  It made me take notice, when I may not have beforehand, that the film begins with diagonal framing that pans from the the lower left-hand corner to the upper right-hand corner. To me, this suggests an upward trajectory, like a company that keeps increasing its profits,  That is, until we see the braceros; here the camera starts at the top and moves down, and also moves to the right. When the VO mentions illegal braceros who cross back into Mexico, the camera switches it up again by moving from the right side of the screen and to the left.

 

 I had to look up the word "rectilinear", but I like learning new words!  From google.com:  

  • PHOTOGRAPHY
    (of a wide-angle lens) corrected as much as possible, so that straight lines in the subject appear straight in the image.

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When the narrative is about how irrigation has brought the fertile land to life or about the legal immigrants entering to till the fields, the diagonals go up from left to right. When the narrative discusses the illegal immigrants, the lines are much more horizontal. The legal has a movement to the right, while the illegal is stagnant. Additionally, the narrative makes it clear the illegal lose the money they have worked for in the US when they return home.

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The opening shots immediately resemble the documentary style and the realism of that type of film. The use of shot after shot of landscape builds tension, as if something is about to happen. There is also a sense of foreboding that reminded me of the use of the clock in "M."

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Until the final few moments of the voiceover where the narrator describes how the story is based on real events one may not even know that this is a fictional story and they could be under the impression that they are watching an actual documentary film. The discussion about the illegal workers gives the impression of foreboding with the warning of how much of their money is stolen when they try to steal it. It does have a much more hopeful tone though throughout which helps to diversify the typical noir opening that we are used to. I think that the tone brings out both the aforementioned emotions and that the differentiation is excellent to help set the mood in a different way that keeps the viewers attention. Especially when the movie was released people may have been much more accustomed to this as a documentary opening and may have been slightly taken aback with how it started.

 

I think the main point that this shows the variation that noir openings can have shows us the importance of Boarder Incident in its contribution to film noir.

 

Mark

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The mood established is one of being in a high school classroom with a documentary film being played. In fact, if it weren't live action, I would have expected see a slide show and a loud "beep" tone to signify advancing the frame. 

However, it isn't a slide show, so there is more credit deserved for the framing. While there is a documentary approach, the sense within the context of the time period has to be considered. After introducing the "braceros" who are generally law abiding, the narrator mentions the fact that some do not abide by the law; and there is the rub. So now you have a story. Now you have an understanding that the corruption, injustice, social plight, poverty-driven-criminal-motivation is at play. Somehow, the viewer understands that simply working hard with your hands like a "bracero" simply isn't good enough. Especially when there are bandits who don't work for a living waiting to rob them. So who is worse? that is the question. These social injustices don't just occur in the big cities in dark alleys, they occur all over, in wide open spaces. Who is worse? the guy who skips the border without visa to work more often, or the one who would rob the hard working individual, or perhaps murder and rob the working person after a long seasons work?  

Here like in most films noir is the ethical dilemma of the characters. Which is wonderful in the context of California being host to Hollywood. Here is a character study of Los Angeles our S. California as a character in a film as well. How appropriate that film makers should address such a non-urban plight for the rest of the world to see, and also address issues of targeted racism, or simply immigration. 

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The film opens up with a bird's-eye view of a natural and agricultural landscape (realism). One can only imagine that new inventions in air flight (in both air planes and helicopters) made this scene possible. With THE KILLERS, we opened up the film almost deep in the ground, we are like some rat looking up at this coffee hole, but in contrast to this film; we are soaring.One can also view this as a very formalistic and unnatural POV, especially given the time period. I can't help but draw parallels in the patterns we often see in films noir of blinds casting shadows on walls, with the natural patterns of shadows shown here in these crops. The next shot of the Braceros is more typical of noir; the mass trapped, a caged in feeling of a heard of a thousand city/jungle men. They are jailed to their fate, until the shot pans out, once again toward the natural and free setting. This must be the golden way, in a B&W flick, or so we think.....

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The documentary styled introduction, with the objective voice over and sweeping establishing shots, helps locate the film in the space between realism and formalism we discussed with The Killers. By setting up the narrative as a true occurrence, or at least based on one, the manipulation of noir style (camera work, lighting, etc) will fly under the radar of more viewers and be all the more effective by selling the film's noir world view.

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Before we are even graced with the opening image, the musical score of Border Incident puts the viewer in an overblown orchestral adventure - the kind of music you'd expect to hear a few years later in The Naked Spur or any of Anthony Mann's 50's westerns. It establishes this noir world as something a little off the beaten path, and down the fields of the California/Mexico border.

John Alton, a master at establishing visual interest, doesn't waste any time exploiting the linear beauty of the workers in the fields and that gargantuan aerial shot of the lone road. Matched up with the cheesy narration that bogged down more than it's fair share of docu-noir, it still manages to stand out for it's striking imagery.

My favorite image in this entire opening sequence is the dissolve to the workers behind the fence. Alton takes us from straight line to straight lines to criss crossing lines in the span of a minute, subtly constricting us in despite all the open land. We started off as God's eye. But now we're just as trapped as the Mexican workers. No propaganda spouting voiceover can screw up storytelling this simplistic and powerful.

 

www.filmnoirarchive.com

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I will admit that I watched it and kind of felt like it was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.  I kept thinking that there had to be more than I was getting.

 

I did like the realistic approach in the documentary style.  Seeing the faces of the immigrants trying to get in legally was pretty discomforting.  It felt like too many people and not enough to go around. There was something menacing about it.  Then talking about the people who choose to go rogue in getting into America?  I could tell that trouble was a'brewing!

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The opening scene of any film noir sets the pace for the entire picture.  The use of a documentary style is to make the viewer feel that this is a "real" story and it can have an impact on their life.  It's not just a story and it gets the viewer in a thinking mind set right away.

 

This style is very different from the hard boiled detective versus the gangster story line. 

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Since the Middle Ages, and probably since oral tradition, narrators have attempted to instill their tales with verisimilitude, as when Wolfram von Eschenbach claimed in in about 1210 that he'd heard the story of the search for the Holy Grail from "Kyot," an individual that scholars have only been able to surmise is fictitious. The claim that a story had a French, Arabic, or some other exotic source, made it more credible. The illusion of reality draws the reader/ listener/ viewer into the story. Border Incident accomplishes the same ends by means of a film style (documentary) that viewers have already been trained to accept as real.

 

The suggestion of reality brings an immediacy to the story, as it suggests the possibility of repetition in our own lives, or in the lives of people we know. Also, the juxtaposition of "reality" and the bizarre emphasizes the surreal nature of film noir by pulling dark incidences into the everyday, making them seem more real.

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The opening does give audience the feeling of watching a documentary. With the landscape, the workers waiting at the border, the scene is truly realistic. However, I do think that the way of which the scene is photographed is highly subjective. Following the diagonal lines on the landscape, the wires at the border, to the direction signs, all of these lines crisscross together and form a forbidden feeling. Moreover, they underscore the dark tone of this movie.   

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Education, human interest, consciousness raising, documentary and composite of a real story - all these things should keep happening.  Americans still don't get it.  And even though I do, I have to make myself watch and keep learning. The thing about consciousness... it's so easy to slip back into comfort zones of routine and institutionalized ignorance.

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The documentary style in noir is a bait-and-switch.  It seduces the viewer with the assumption of normality, of an everyday routine similar to the viewers own, it then rips that assumption from the viewer creating disequilibrium in the viewers mind.

 

It also invades the viewers psyche.  The real world is something he or she is familiar with and like most people they fill their lives with hope and happiness, there is security in the documentary like life we all try to live.  However, the documentary style noir reminds them that the world outside the Paramount Theater is a cruel world where more often than not darkness can find them.

 
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Personally, I find this opening a bit alienating. It is very documentary-like, not suggestive of film noir to me at all. It doesn't put me in the right frame of mind for watching a film noir; the fact-laden voiceover introduction actually made me zone out. Is it supposed to heighten the sensationalism by suggesting that the film that follows is based on true incidents? That seems the most likely scenario, but for me, it just doesn't work.

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I think I'd have to see the whole thing to get the "Noir" vibe...I think it certainly comes across during the opening credits, primarily thanks to the score that absolutely sets a "Noir-esque" tone but when you actually get into the film itself I'm not seeing anything that screams "NOIR" it just feels like a documentary so far. Which I suppose is that "Cinematic Realism" that we learned about this week...

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I like Border Incident.  To its credit, it’s still fresh and relevant.  I have tremendous respect for director Anthony Mann.  I’m a big fan of T-Men, Raw Deal and The Naked Spur.  Cinematographer John Alton’s work is beautiful, moody and haunting.

 

However, in this clip, what I’m not sure about is the use of a voice over to deliver the back-story exposition of the film.  I don’t particularly care to see exposition delivered as a list of facts.  Here we are at the border.  There are the irrigation canals.  There are the fields of crops.  We need workers.  They come from Mexico.  Most obey the law.  Some don’t and there are criminals waiting to prey on them.

 

Yawn.

 

I want to see exposition woven into the drama of the film.  I don’t want to see the film version of a social studies class.  If you start the film at the point where the clip ends, picking up the three Mexican workers as they make their way back into Mexico to the point of them being ambushed, killed and robbed, this is a far more grim and startling opening to the film.  Yes, you don’t have some of the back-story, but in this case I’m not sure it’s completely necessary and there’s value in having a film be a click ahead of the audience.

 

The opening of Border Incident reminds me of the stentorian music and voice-of-authority narration at the beginning of films like, The House on 92nd Street, Henry Hathaway (1945) and The Street With No Name, William Keighley (1848).  My issue with this type of exposition is the frequently included message that the filmmakers think is important to communicate or, at its worse, serves as a form of advertising or propaganda.  One example that I do think works is the opening of The Third Man, Carol Reed (1949).  The pace is fast, it’s well shot and edited, and it simply states the reality of the black market in post war Vienna.  Perhaps the problem with the opening clip in Border Incident is it’s just not that well done.

 

In Border Incident the message in the clip is, “…it is this problem of human suffering and injustice about which you should know.”  This shouldn’t be stated it should be dramatized.  Similarly, at the end of The Asphalt Jungle, John Huston (1950), there is a scene where the police commissioner (John McIntire) tells us what the world would be like if there were no police officers to answer the calls for help.  Sure, that’s true, but this instantly takes the movie out of the hands of the characters we’ve spent the entire film with in favor of an editorial touting the value of the police force.  Instead of hearing the voice of the characters we hear the voice of the writer or producer or studio.

 

One aspect that I like about the best film noir is it doesn’t attempt to make the world a better place.  If anything it tacks in the opposite direction, taking us into a sermonizing free world of lust and greed filled with personal and institutional corruption.

 

-Mark

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The opening narration is very straight to the point as it gives us factual information about California's Imperial Valley and the braceros who work in the farm fields. There is little emotional intonation until the line "But there are OTHER braceros..." At that point the narrator's tone gets more serious, and the previously light score becomes darker sounding, too. The clip ends with a kind of citation. The narrator tells the listener that the information given has come from the U.S. Dept. of Justice. This factoid, along with docu-realistic style of narration and visual footage used give the film's opening a weight and a seriousness. These are not just fictional characters, but people who really work those California fields whose experiences may just be like those we are about to see.

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I accidentally erased my monograph on this opening sequence. There's a Noir movie right there.

 

Anyway, I was saying: Documentary realism and police procedurals fit nicely into the Noir Style canon in that they explore vagaries of individual lives. Almost by definition a film criminal is a flawed hero or a fallen person especially if the crime was committed out of desperation or moral principle (as an example, gangsters are not ideal Noir heroes because of their gleeful abandonment of civilized, "moral" behavior). The opening of Border Incident is stylistically brilliant: tying the ordered lines of farms and canals to the chain linked fence holding back braceros at the border. All of this order suggests that man can control nature by imposing his will. The chain linked fence suggests a prison; the border jumpers, who are shown on the *other* side of a barbed wire fence, are running free from this oppressively controlled milleu. You can sense from the way this opening sequence is shot that the border jumpers are wild and free and will pay dearly for rebelling against the imposed order.

 

 

 

 

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This opening has such a harsh contrast with the thundering, ominous music that transitions into a travelogue-like narration over scenic sights. When it shifts back to nighttime shots, we start to get a sense that the story will once again be just as dark and menacing as Andre Previn's music. It's also strange to think that six decades later, the subject matter is still just as relevant today.

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Like several others, I find the heavy-handed docu-narration to be dated and a mood-buster. However, Alton's cinematography is amazing - and, being a rural view, it becomes an interesting parallel with  the aerial shots (again with stentorian narration) of NYC that form the opening of  Jules Dassin's "Naked City". 

 

Many 'noir' films show man as a tiny, tiny part of something huge and impersonal - struggling against a vast environment that cares nothing for him. Here it's Nature - rather than the City - and I'll be interested to see how this works out in the film.

 

I'm still struggling with the terms 'Formalist' and 'Realist' - but, in this case, I think Mann and Alton have very cleverly interwoven the two - with a 'realist' documentary-style opening that, in terms of its composition, is heavily 'formalist'. 

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Like several others, I find the heavy-handed docu-narration to be dated and a mood-buster. However, Alton's cinematography is amazing - and, being a rural view, it becomes an interesting parallel with  the aerial shots (again with stentorian narration) of NYC that form the opening of  Jules Dassin's "Naked City". 

 

But it was probably innovative back then, you have to look at it in hindsight.

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One of the most brutal movies I have ever seen.  The opening narration is quick to the point.  Sadly, there are still many "braceros" still working in the fields today.  Some are treated like the dirt on the bottom of our shoes.  I wish this would change.

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