Border Incident

by Glenn Erickson Apr 25, 2023

The first MGM film from the noir team of Anthony Mann / John Alton is a crime exposé of the migrant farmworker issue. Ricardo Montalban is excellent as a Mexican immigration cop, and co-star George Murphy makes a traumatic impression in one of the most sadistic scenes in classic film noir. Hardcore noir addresses a thorny political issue, and has the guts to place the blame where it belongs — on corrupt U.S. agri-business. Mann and Alton are in top form; even with the film’s EGBOK ending, this was pretty strong tea for MGM in the middle of the HUAC years.

Border Incident
Warner Archive Collection
1949 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 94 min. / Available at MovieZyng / Street Date May 2, 2023 / 21.99 before discount
Starring: Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Howard Da Silva, James Mitchell, Arnold Moss, Alfonso Bedoya, Charles McGraw, Arthur Hunnicutt, Teresa Celli, José Torvay, John Ridgely, Sig Ruman, Otto Waldis, Lita Baron, Martín Garralaga, John McGuire, Nedrick Young.
Cinematography: John Alton
Art Directors: Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters
Film Editor: Conrad A. Nervig
Musical director: André Previn
Screenplay by John C. Higgins story by Higgens, George Zuckerman
Produced by Nicholas Nayfack
Directed by
Anthony Mann

Over at the poverty row studio Eagle-Lion, director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton got the attention of the industry with two excellent films noir,  T-Men  and  Raw Deal.  Their reward was a ticket to the more lucrative fields of Culver City’s MGM. Alton would move into high-class Liz Taylor movies and won an Oscar for  An American in Paris,  his first color film. Mann would slip sideways over to Universal to direct James Stewart in a series of westerns with a gritty new attitude. Their last feature at Eagle Lion had been  Reign of Terror  aka  The Black Book,  a not-so-subtle transposition of the HUAC witch hunts to the days of the French Revolution. Their first MGM film was  Border Incident,  a clever almost-remake of T-Men.

Border Incident is the American dramatic debut of Ricardo Montalban, and he’s terrific. MGM hired him to play handsome Latin lovers in musicals; he’d proceed immediately to fine parts in William Wellman’s  Battleground  and John Sturges’  Mystery Street.  The only other American star we can remember playing a Mexican federal policeman is Charlton Heston, in Orson Welles’  Touch of Evil. As 1949 marked MGM’s 25th anniversary, their releases all came with an opening title card announcement, as proper and elegant as a wedding invitation. It’s followed immediately by André Previn’s sinister title music cue.


U.S.-Mexican cooperation launches an undercover mission to safeguard the lives of illegal Mexican farmworkers, aka braceros. Federal Immigration Agent Jack Bearnes (George Murphy) joins his Mexican counterpart Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) to get to the bottom of a Bracero smuggling operation running out of Southern California. Pablo pretends to be a migrant crossing the border illegally, and Jack masquerades as a crook with stolen work permit blanks to sell. They find a crooked labor operation run by the unscrupulous farmer Owen ‘Parky’ Parkson (Howard Da Silva). Parkson’s foreman Jeff Amboy (Charles McGraw) and henchman Clayton Nordell (Arthur Hunnicut) are suspicious of the pair; in concert with Mexican crooks, they ambush and murder illegals sneaking back across the border with their meager pay.

Border Incident treats the problem as it should, as a crime by business elements monetizing the international border for cheap labor. It’s exactly the kind of non-glamorous issue drama that Louis B. Mayer would never have green-lit, a political situation that even Edward R. Murrow wouldn’t touch for ten years, in a famous CBS Reports news show called Harvest of Shame.

Although it takes the position that the Immigration & Naturalization Service police are there to save migrants from danger, the script by John C. Higgins and George Zuckerman doesn’t soft-pedal the cruel labor exploitation down El Centro way. Seventy years later, it’s rare to find an honest account explaining why abuses persist — the landowner farmers want a cheap workforce with no rights and no official identity. The Mexicans are easy to cheat and easily gotten rid of should they become a nuisance.


Thus we end up with a film noir set in the agricultural Coachella Valley. The progress of Pablo Rodriguez takes us step-by-step through the illegal immigration process. An unscrupulous German in a border town (Lubitsch regular Sig Ruman) phones Howard da Silva’s Parkson, taking export orders for ‘Mexican dolls.’ Bracero field hands unable to secure a rare official work permit pay money to be roughed up and smuggled through the mostly open border to Parkson’s ranch, there to be guarded like prisoners until insider orders come through for their services. Parkson takes a major chunk of their pay for meals. When the fields are picked, they’re dumped near the border to return to Mexico.

Nowhere is the word ‘wetback’ used in this film. Parkson’s criminal crew insult the Braceros by calling them Monkeys, and only a little less cruelly, ‘Paisanos.’ Shockingly, the film asserts that crimes of mass murder are being perpetrated. The crooks ambush and kill the migrants on their way home, stealing their pay and dumping them in desert quicksand. Anthony Mann would repeat the theme the next year in his  The Furies  for Paramount, with a racist backstory about wholesale massacres of Mexican-Americans. We expect Border Incident to downplay murderous racism, but it instead accentuates it. The villains are no different than Nazi butchers.


We see this through the sensitive eyes of actor Ricardo Montalban. Although there are plenty of real Mexicans in the cast, like Alfonso Bedoya and José Torvay (both from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) most of the dialogue is in English. Anglo actor James Mitchell (The Band Wagon,  Stars in My Crown) is okay as Juan Garcí, a rather generic peasant just looking for an even break. Much better is the little-known actor Arnold Moss, a Brooklynite who makes an entirely convincing Mexican smuggler and interacts well with the authentic Bedoya. Moss had just played a Robespierre-like zealot for Anthony Mann in  Reign of Terror;  he’d later portray an enigmatic alien in the weird anti-Communist harangue  The 27th Day.

Anthony Mann’s flair with violence and scary bad guys is very much in evidence. The main villain is the excellent Howard Da Silva, a politically-active actor who became one of the best villains in noir: The Blue Dahlia,  They Live By Night,  The Underworld Story.  Da Silva was blacklisted for several years, and bounced back for a second career that culminated in his Ben Franklin in  1776.  Here he’s just a businessman dealing in human flesh and trying to keep less-then-reliable elements in line. Mann grants him some creepy close-ups taking target practice with a pellet gun.


Charles McGraw (The Narrow Margin) is outstanding as a hard-bitten criminal; Arthur Hunnicutt (The Big Sky) leaves his folksy charm behind to play a laconic, uncomplicated killer. Assisted by the un-billed Jack Lambert, the Parkson Ranch thugs are up to their necks in murders.

Somebody save poor Jeremy Renner! Somebody save poor Jeremy Renner!

This has to be MGM’s unexciting musical star George Murphy’s finest screen hour. Nobody would wish the fate Murphy’s unlucky character Jack Bearnes gets here. It’s really a repeat of what befalls Alfred Ryder in Mann’s T-Men, only twice as traumatic. Audiences in 1949 can’t have expected this level of cinema sadism — the sight of the agonized Bearnes trying to crawl to safety is unforgettable. The Jeremy Renner parallel is no joke.

Border Incident a prominent example of the postwar emphasis on screen violence and sadism. Mann’s stock in trade would be at least one scary bit of sadism per film. In Raw Deal John Ireland almost impales Dennis O’Keefe’s eye on the antler of a stuffed deer. James Stewart had to be disappointed by the low-wattage jeopardy in his MGM loser Malaya, made the same year. When he launched a series of ‘adult’ westerns at Universal, he likely saw this show and knew that Anthony Mann was the director he wanted.


The exciting ending ambush takes place under moonlight in desert arroyos, aided by John Alton’s exacting cinematography. The finale pushes a hands-across-the-border friendship’ theme: at a congratulatory ceremony for Pablo, a room of officials are joined by serape-clad Juan Garcí and and his wife. The stentorian narrator gets the final word, insisting that ‘all is now well’ and asserting that the Immigration Service is there to protect the rights of the oppressed Braceros. In screening revivals, that always gets a huge, sarcastic laugh. Maybe it was needed back in 1949, when the audience was likely still traumatized by the fate of Jack Bearnes.

There was an official Bracero program, begun in WW2 to ensure a steady labor force for American farmlands during the wartime manpower shortage. The movie presents the program as a big success, but in 1947 it was scaled back. Illegal immigration became the norm, and it officially ended much later in the 1960s. Plenty of European nations instigated ‘guest worker’ programs that regulated both what workers could come and promised them fair wages and security. American agri-business wanted the unregulated right to a low-paid workforce with no official rights. There may not be any criminal gangs out there systematically murdering farmworkers, but the overall exploitation continues because American business wants it to continue.



The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Border Incident is in excellent shape — John Alton’s terrific B&W cinematography is sharper and clearer than ever in HD. Even shots of vehicles on roads seem more dynamic, and his ‘day for night’ sequences convey the desert atmosphere.

The extras are the same from the 2006 DVD release. Audio commentator Dana Polan is still active at NYU. He begins by calling this more of a police procedural than a pure noir … well, as noir is a style and not a genre, it’s still a core title. Polan’s analysis is mainly cinematic; when he deals with politics he sticks with impressions of bold American heroes, and the relative passivity of the good Mexican peasants, who need to be guided to meaningful action.

The other extra is the film’s gritty original trailer, which probably couldn’t make the movie appeal to upscale theater-goers. It’s one of the few MGM noirs with no love interest whatsoever. A sketch in the poster art on the package front includes a dishy dame with a gun; unless she’s supposed to represent Charles McGraw’s frumpy wife Bella (Lynn Whitney), the representation is a bald cheat. No romance here!

Around 1997 I was able to talk to producer Robert Justman, who at this time was working constantly as a production assistant, assistant director and production manager on scores of films noir. When I asked about all those classic films by top directors, Justman had nothing to say. But when Ricardo Montalban’s name was mentioned he became very vocal. The actor had a golden reputation as a talented, friendly ‘good guy,’ and Justman took pride inn helping the actor win his (now) most famous role, the villain Khan on the TV show  Star Trek.

Excellent noir choice, Warner Archive!  We’re hoping for a fantastic restored and remastered  The Narrow Margin.  CineSavant is several years late, but with this review we’ve finally updated the Warner Archive Logo .

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Border Incident
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio commentary by Dana Polan
Original trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
April 22, 2023

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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