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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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The documentary style, brings a realism, and an almost newsreel like atmosphere to the opening of this film. The music, the camera angles, and the narrator's voice give an urgent almost,"you need to listen to this, and watch this" feel to the audience.  This is important to us, and could affect all of us.

There is also a darkness to the opening, especially with the fence covered Braceros scene. This is very Noir like also.

The mention of the illegal entrants, the fence jumpers getting robbed by bandits, is ominous, and brings to mind a possibility of something terrible looming.

Crossing lines, genres, styles, fence jumping if you will , but retaining a sense of darkness, crime, uneasiness, and anxiety are what makes this Noir.

We aren't safe outside of the urban areas, there is danger in the rural, and farming communities as well.

 

 
 
 

 

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Documentary style narrative opening on water, on the American Canal, intersecting and the lack of vegetation or life ( except for the 2 vehicles) reveals the conundrum of real versus artificial. There is the man-made canal to create an oasis of vegetation in El Centro and Imperial Valley, and hear the facts as we are being flown above.

 

By the end of the clip we seem closer to earth, able to see the workers in the fields,and the lovely vectors in angles of those fields, and finally, we are separated from the people by fencing, also angled, and most of them are focused on something we do not see--I hate to keep coming back to this, but the entirety of the clip is about hope and in the end the magnificent sky, interrupted by the signs--the warnings...this side, that side, and with the narrators words we know there is danger ahead.

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The first clue that we are here to watch another example of film noir is the music over the corporate logo and titles. Unfortunately it is too loud and too obviously histrionic and so many of us might already be lamenting our choice of film for the evening.


            The fields are being photographed from a low flying plane and as there is no bottom window in an airplane the camera must look out the side …and to one side …as every cinematographer knows. If the camera had been placed to look straight down or straight out there would have been nothing but stobing because of the 24 frames a second camera speed coupled with the speed of the airplane. (Strobing is what makes wagon wheels appear to roll backward when filmed by the motion picture camera.)


            Had it been possible to look straight down at the fields, as was later used in the opening of West Side Story …photographed in a slow forward movement from a blimp high above New York City …we would have seen nothing but the visually dull body of each field. Seen from the diagonal we see the body of the fields, the perimeter roads and lanes, and fragments of the adjoining fields. It creates visually interesting patterns. It also references the abstraction of modern art which broadens its appeal to an educated audience. Thus the limited technology has been artistically well resolved and makes for an interesting sequence.


            What this music and photography and stentorian declamation should tell us, however, is that the producer and director want us to see immediately that they believe they are working with a large issue, a large canvas. This is not being done for effect …to hit us over the hand a second time …with the announcement that this is Another Film Noir Motion Picture!


            The preface by Prof. explained that the film is in the documentary style. And I agreed that it was until, that is, I saw the farm laborers waiting behind the chain link fence …almost every one of them fashionably correct in their 40’s and 50’s fedoras and southern California sport shirts and sport coats…leisure wear. They did not appear to me to be Mexican farm workers. And what I really understood then is that I was back on the MGM lot and that dialogue was about to begin.


            As the best example of a dark film in a documentary style I recommend Bunel’s Los Olvidados. 


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Certainly, the other clips we have watched have had a gritty, dark feel to them but they also have had a feeling of artificiality to them. That isn't a bad thing. It's just a product of the studio system era these things were mostly shot in. The opening of Border Incident managers to blend noir with documentary which is unlike anything we've seen so far. In other films of the time, you would get a newsreel montage, something you'd find in, for example, the opening of Citizen Kane. This would give the viewer a taste of nonfiction in a fictional world. This sequence, however, seems like a precursor to direct cinema, a documentary genre. The helicopter shots allow us to observe this land from afar before we eventually get close-up to the migrant farm workers. We see the struggle in their faces. There is a realness in this sequence we haven't seen yet.

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The lines of crops and trees in the aerial views mimic the lines in the fences. The documentary-like narration lets us know that this story won't be pretty.

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The opening sequence of this film, by the fly over, gives you the feeling that America is great.  We are a wide open country, bountiful and ready for all to partake in its bounty.  The diagonal footage is reflected in the fence at the border where migrant farm workers wait for legal entry.  The music and footage causes the viewer to feel as if we looking at a documentary on agriculture and the migrant worker in America.  After this scene the footage becomes much darker and music deepens causing the viewer to realize that all may not be as it seems.  The narration makes you realize that there is a dark under belly to this vast vision of American and it's migrant workers.  It sets you up to want to see this "true" story of what happens to it's characters. 

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The opening music sets a frame of standard movie drama, but that quickly transitions to the pseudo-documentary exposition; a flatly narrated explanation of the agricultural industry of this area and the mechanisms of labor that make it successful.  The repetitive images accompanying this information are the diagonal lines of canals, roads, perfect rows of trees and perfectly lined furrows; man-made unnatural boundaries.  This dehumanizing explanation is devoid of any human images; it categorizes the braceros as just a component of the machine.  

Our first shot of the the human labor opens with barbed wire, another man-made boundary, which betrays the implication that this arrangement between neighbors is peer-to-peer.  The wire is meant to corral and control like any other farm animal, the chain-link fence continuing the diagonal line motif, which, combined with the hats of the men, obscures their faces, continuing the dehumanize them.

The turns quickly to the revealing that some buck the machine; illegal immigrants, shown negatively in silhouettes at night, running to the border.  The narration tells of the negative consequences of such activities. The 'CROSSING PROHIBITED" signage also trying to exert authority and control.  

This launches the narrative on the noir side of this scenario, turning from the pseudo-documentary of the Department of Agriculture to illegal activities and a fight for survival.

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The opening scene is definitely different from the typical film noir. The agricultural shots gave the scene the realism, which you can tell was influenced by German Expression style. It reminded me of the travel reels snippets, which sort of undermines the darker undertones of film noir.  The voice over does set up the fate of what the spectator will see. This realism documentary shot does show that directors were beginning to explore other magnitudes of film noir. 

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After a standard set of opening credits, the opening switches gears into something that looks like a television documentary of the time.It looks at the "big picture" with a series of overhead shots of the vast agricultural fields, then puts a human face on the story, showing the workers behind the chain link fence. When the theme of illegals comes up we find we're in a night scene with indistinct shadowy figures and posted signs. The shift in mood is consistent with Noir. The realism shifts into the formalism of the dark world.

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Through the visual design and voiceover narration of the opening scene, we get the sense that we are watching a newsreel, a common feature of the theatergoing experience. The facts spewed make the stakes seem pretty high, discussing the vitalness of the American land and those who legally work it. It is the great agricultural empire which feeds the nation and defines the American west. This awe is enhanced by the exaggerated sound of the narrator, who sounds like he’s either introducing a brand new attraction or preaching to the audience. Then the visuals and tone turn dark as he discusses those who illegally come to the U.S., those too impatient or ungrateful for the opportunity to work the fields (not my opinion just the feeling I got). The visual is of dark skies and the facts spewed now are tragic and foreshadowing. The last words cite the source of the film’s facts and figures, giving it an extra layer of realism.

 

 

This reminds me of the Warner Brothers gangster pictures in the 1930s which claimed to be ripped from the headlines as people like Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde, and other members of organized crime became the basis for dark, gritty stories regaling the audience of the underbelly of American society. The studios knew violence sold, so they sold it hard, but the enforcement of the Production Code in the mid-30s made sure the perpetrators of such violence were punished not humanized. That’s still an element of noir, but it’s less sensationalist and more honest. They use documentary-like realism and “subjective formalism” to convey reality far more convincingly than the sensationalist films preceding.

 

 

Modern audiences still love the “based on a true story” or “inspired by real events,” especially when it has elements of exaggeration and Hollywoodization. Something about the Hollywood spin on reality makes it more appealing, more digestible perhaps as it represents the mingling between that reality and the fantasy of films.

 

 

It’s interesting, because when photography became more practical towards the end of the nineteenth-century, it was used as documentation. We have family portraits, portraits of the dead, and war photos. It was not considered high art like painting or sculpture, but around the turn-of-the-century, camera technology and exposure to the public helped it transform into a higher art form, for more than just photographing battles but as something equally creative as other art forms. Film went through the same phase. Noir and its precursors emerged just around the time people realized it could be more. It could document, yes, capture a moment in time, but also a mindset, a lifestyle, and more importantly, a life lived. Lives, conscious and unconscious, not unlike our own.

 

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Anthony Mann uses the same (or similar) typography for this film as he uses in the western The Man From Laramie.  It resembles wood with its jagged edges and is slanted forward to show momentum.

 

The documentary style has the same powerful voiceover that commands us to understand the importance of what we are about to witness.  The quick pacing of the shots of the land below mirror the urgency of the narration as we hear words and phrases such as:  runs through the desert, life-giving artery, wasteland, great, important, manpower, army of workers.

 

No, this is not a bleak urban jungle; it is a bleak "wasteland" of vast open space inhabited by the "army of workers" toiling endlessly in the hot desert sun.  This is another story of ordinary people that get swept up in inexorable circumstances.  The imperative quality of the terse music over the opening credits and the brusque voice-over compels and warns us of what is about to take place.

 

The realism of a documentary style brings the action closer to home.  What is about to take place in this story could happen to any of us.  It is not just a movie.   

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It automatically feels like a documentary when the narration starts. I don't see the film noir aspect in this clip particularly, so I need to watch the rest of the film!

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Very effective use of narration in the vein of Laura or The Naked City. It definitely sets the tone of the upcoming film.

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The clip is giving is so much info for us the viewer, this is farm land. And many people that help the US are Mexican's

 

there are many kinds of Mexican's that come over the US 

 

to work legal

to work illegal try to go back and get robbed.

 

When they talk about farming and the Mexican's that will help farm the music is happy music. When they talk about the Illegal Mexican's the music gets dark and low.

 

It some what reminds me of the opening to 1982's Scarface. 

 

 

Wow! So true the connection you've pointed out with the opening of Scarface!

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

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Throughout the beginning of the clip, everything is presented in an upbeat and optimistic way. Basically, work hard and the American dream will happen.  At the very end of the clip the lighting goes dark as we see illegal immigrants sneaking through to the US.  This shows an unwanted element that will inevitably lead to danger.

 

The documentary style contributes to show how this could happen to you.  Everything seems so realistic that we can believe the events we are seeing on the screen. Also the voice-over became a big part of film noir.

 

The most important contribution is the interjection of realism and the use of voice-over.

 

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The opening credits are shot over a landscape that is harsh and foreboding, even lunar-like with its rocky crags and desert wasteland. When the voice over narration starts, it sets up a newsreel feel for a clip that takes place over the Imperial Valley of CA. The narrator uses words like "army" and "empire" to set up the medium shot of bracero workers shot through double chain-link with their anxious looks--all with the approval of the United States Department of Justice. 

 

It seems that viewers are in for anything but justice - setting up the noir qualities of this film.

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I've also noticed the "documentary-style opening" in a bunch of Police Procedural and heist films of this era. To me, the purpose is to establish location and add another level of plausiblity to the story. Now, I'm not sure of the chronology of this technique, but if it is one of the first opening film sequences using it, then it sets the style for all the Police Procedurals and Heist movies I've watched that have similar openings. 

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The dark turbulent music sets the mood, in this film during the credits. The sweeping cinematography depicting the vast open landscape sets a dark undercurrent on the topic of illegal immigration for migrant workers and the violence that occurs. This clip shows how life should go, but the mood of the film is such the viewer knows there can be an ominous outcomes.

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The mood and tone of Border Incident is quickly set at the studio logo and opening credits.

The music conveys a mood of Anger and an atmosphere of Danger.  

 

The documentary voice-over narration is unsettling to me from the get go.  I feel like I literally have heard the same voice whilst watching actual war newsreels from the noir era. 

 

The "memory" of this voice, its sheer sound, is a tool of noir. 
It stirs agitation.   It suggests a war of some sort is coming, and it is not in our imaginations.  Or is it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In many ways, this faux documentary opening shows a path beyond the hard-boiled detective, or the disorienting symbolism of earlier films noir. It's been years since I've seen this film, and I can't remember exactly where it goes from here, but I seem to remember it becomes a more standard noir once it dives into the actual story. Here, in setting up the context, no one is jarred into a sense of dread.  Having said that, it does lay out, through voice-over, that there are good AND bad folks coming through those border gates. And, it certainly prepares us for a deeper "exploration" of those who cross illegally. But, again, the documentary style of the opening almost makes me want to yawn.

 

I assume that, by employing a neorealism style, it affords directors and producers opportunities to stretch their creative wings. However, this assumes that Hollywood was aware they were working in the Noir "style". I don't think that was the case, but I do think they were employing some techniques that would lead their films to that classification. 

 

It could be reasonably argued that, rather than filmmakers being able to expand their efforts into Noir, films like this provided critics, scholars, and fans the option to expand their definition of the style. Sayin'.

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Border Incident (1949) I wouldn't even have considered this film noir except for the ending landscape shots in this 1st scene. The documentary-style opening was, at first, a little distracting as I'm used to film noir scenes feeling dramatic the whole way through. This timeline felt noir - then documentary - then back to noir with those dark/shadowy landscape scenes right at the end. I'm curious why this would be considered noir but I obviously need to see the whole film.

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Border Incident is complete new to me; I hadn't even heard of it until this course.

 

As others have pointed out, the music and the imagery create a very certain mood: one of perilous and threatening danger. We get these dramatic chords that weave in between the diagonals of the river, roads, farmlands, and trees. There is an obvious pull, a movement, where we are swiftly pushed or flung into this story. This aerial or birds-eye POV is, in my mind, supposed to be one of neutrality, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. Perhaps it's because we are continually moving? I'm not sure, but it's a different feeling that what we would get if the camera remained static. I think that many films noir have a certain amount of realism--even with such instances of Expressionism--and this documentary style puts that realism into the forefront. Additionally, it expands the noir style (which I'm now leaning more toward calling it). We don't need any on-the-edge detectives. As long as we have some on-the-fringe characters, along with some violence and precise/starkly contrasting cinematography and lighting, I think we have some makings of a noir.

 

I am sure exactly how I feel about it overall, though. I understand that it was meant to be in the same vein as a documentary--and that's certainly how it looks and sounds--but my main trouble that I have is the narration. While it generally sounds like something out of a newsreel, it also sounds a bit like an infomercial, as if the narrator or the filmmaker is trying to sell me on the story. There is certainly urgency in the narration, telling us about the history of braceros and this border incident, but the timbre and dictation of the words left me a little "meh" because it sounds a bit like a car dealer is trying to get me to buy a car. That's a small quibble, but it does deter me a bit to watching the rest of the film.

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Like most of the daily doses we have seen so far, the opening to Border Incident does a great job of juxtaposing the everyday with the seedy qualities found in film noir. The documentary-like opening, with it's panning overhead views and exposition-filled narration, while providing the necessary background for the film, also grounds the reality in the mind of the audience. This is happening now and every single day. This isn't a made-up world. It's one that, while you may not be exposed to, everyone at least has a sense of. I think generally people had a picturesque view of farm-life: a relaxing, pastoral existence that bring a person back to a simpler time and closer with nature. The exposition reminds us that this life comes with hard, labor-intensive work which requires outside help.

 

The beautiful overhead pans, while pleasing to the eye, are shot askew, which represent something off-kilter about the environment. Something is not quite right and the odd angles going contrary to the natural lines of the landscape subtly implant this notion in your mind. From there, we see dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of laborers waiting patiently for a chance to work the fields we have just passed over. However they are shot through what appears to be a double fence, setting us apart from them. Perhaps this separation symbolizes that these workers are meant to be kept away from the farmlands we have just visited, something to be contained, perhaps dangerous, and let out in small quantities lest they overrun the area. We move to some of the illegal braceros crossing the frontier, dark shapes which blot the beautiful white landscape before panning over to a sign that reads "Forbidden Territory". Contrary to the opening shots shot in bright daylight, a darkness is looming and is starting to cover the land.

 

I would say Border Incident continues in the fine tradition of film noir we have seen thus far. The documentary opening reinforces a common element that is present is most of the films that have been discussed: the corruption of the ordinary with evil and violence. The documentary realism provides a new method to establish that sentiment. It also gives it a true-to-life quality that helps to insert the audiences into the world being presented. Combined with the visual flair film noir is also best known for, it presents an intriguing premise and I am looking forward to seeing this film in its entirety.

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It's striking to me, against what we know of the plight of migrant workers today, that the narrator initially presents the agricultural industry and it's workers in such a wholesome, positive light. The braceros are spoken so highly of, though I am sure they were treated like rubbish, and had to face constant prejudice. It's funny then that the migrant workers would be separated into the good and the bad. Any population can be divided in such a basic subjective category. 


 


I am no expert on migrant worker history in America, but if what is presented here is true, or realistic, then I would consider this work to be an important contribution to film noir - and film at all. It's presenting a slice of life from our nation's history, but also injecting it with some of that seedy underbelly that gets swept under the rug more often than not. I am just concerned, having not seen the whole piece yet, that the actual workers, whether legal or illegal, will be the "seedy" factor. I tend to take the side of the oppressed. I doubt that all illegal workers are just after money. Most of them are struggling to survive and support other family members in difficult living conditions. 


 


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