Tony Richardson’s look at corruption in the border patrol service is both sensational and insightful, and Jack Nicholson gives a committed performance as a downtrodden functionary who finds himself in a major moral and humanitarian catastrophe. The problem is still there today, with no consensus on the right diagnosis or solution. The action melodrama costars Harvey Keitel & Valerie Perrine, and introduces (to the U.S.) the impressive Elpidia Carrillo.
The Border (1982)
Region B Blu-ray
1982 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 108 min. / Street Date January 22, 2018 / available from Powerhouse Films UK / £14.99
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Valerie Perrine, Warren Oates, Elpidia Carrillo, Shannon Wilcox, Manuel Viescas, Jeff Morris, Lonny Chapman, Alan Fudge.
Cinematography: Ric Waite, Vilmos Zsigmond
Film Editor: Robert K. Lambert
Original Music: Ry Cooder
Written by Deric Washburn, Walon Green, David Freeman
Produced by Edgar Bronfman Jr.
Directed by Tony Richardson
It’s no surprise that Tony Richardson’s 1982 The Border is indeed more relevant now, when the lack of governmental interest in solving our ‘border issues’ with Mexico is more troublesome than ever. Neither Washington nor Hollywood has ever given full attention to the issue of illegal immigration, leaving the field to liberal independents of the 1980s: (El Norte, ¡Alambrista!). There was 1949’s Border Incident, a remarkable MGM picture film noir from Anthony Mann that identified the ‘wetback’ problem as a failure of an international guest worker program. American gangsters smuggle Mexican workers into the states and charge farmers big money to deliver them as virtual slave labor. Troublemakers are ruthlessly killed in the remote desert. The tragedy of Border Incident is that its fade-out promises that a new arrangement called the Bracero Program has solved the problem and will alleviate the exploitation. The Bracero program reportedly faltered and failed soon afterward . . . American growers liked the old system, which gave them no responsibility for their laborers, and let them pay wages that few Americans would accept.
The Border is written as a hybrid action thriller / social issue picture and succeeds on both counts. Telling the story through the experience of a Border Patrol agent turns out to be a good idea. The whole arrangement of field patrolmen working away from supervision, with ample opportunities to augment their meager salaries, would seem to guarantee corruption on a wide scale. The Border assumes that is the case. Who knows what the situation is like now, with the service boosted by thousands of new officers?
The 1982 screenplay presumes that the same corruption described in Border Incident is operating around El Paso, Texas. Badgered by his wife Marcy (Valerie Perrine), United States border patrol guard Charlie Smith (Jack Nicholson) moves to Texas and takes his place in the daily illegal alien round-up around the ‘tortilla curtain’ between El Paso and Juarez. Charlie wasn’t happy working in Los Angeles. He would rather return to the Forest Service, but Marcy insists that he must ‘go forward’ to earn the money that will buy the dream life she always wanted. They’re sharing a duplex with Marcy’s high school girlfriend Savannah (Shannon Wilcox), whose husband Cat (Harvey Keitel) is a guard on Charlie’s squad, under their captain ‘Red’ (Warren Oates). Charlie is appalled that he cannot prevent Marcy from running up their charge accounts, and he’s also depressed by the brutal work he’s doing, rounding up miserable border-crossers. To make ends meet Charlie opts into Cat and Red’s smuggling scam, operated by the unstable J.J. (Jeff Morris). They help chosen coyotes herd selected ‘wetbacks’ into trucks, to be transported to distant cities; this is how Cat and Red can throw their big drunken barbecues at their new backyard swimming pools. Charlie has no sooner begun than he regrets his choice. He befriends Guatemalan refugees María and her brother Juan (Elpidia Carrillo & Manuel Viescas). María lost her husband in an earthquake and is trying to make the trip with a baby; unknown to Charlie, Cat’s venal Mexican contact Manuel (Mike Gomez) has stolen the baby to sell for ‘adoption.’ Then Charlie realizes that Cat is murdering other coyotes to keep the field open for J.J. and Manuel.
The Border is different from the average ‘suffering minority’ issue movie in that the plight of the illegal/undocumented immigrants is not just a sentimental problem to make an American hero look good. We see enough of the trap in which María and Juan must live to realize that the American method of blocking entry and returning border crossers is a mess: a cruel fraud and a pointless exercise. In Los Angeles we see Charlie making a token arrest, in a factory where every employee is undocumented. The agency doesn’t clean the whole place out, because an arrangement has been made. The inference is that there’s an entire world of industry — factories, sweatshops, agriculture — that likes the status quo because it gives them labor at a fraction of the going rate, from a population of near-slaves with no rights.
Charlie sees the same thing happening in El Paso on a bigger scale. Nothing effective is being done; just as in L.A. the guards provide a capture & return service that pumps out positive statistics for the program reviews.
English filmmakers are attracted to stories of American injustice, but they often get their facts and stories terribly wrong. Tony Richardson puts a great deal of effort into developing a contrast between the immigrants’ subhuman living conditions, and the Americans that work to deal with them. Anybody honest working for the INS, border patrols, or law enforcement should surely be enraged by how Cat and Red are depicted — or maybe it all seems too accurate. Mostly ex- military, the hardworking guards are not brutes and do not mistreat the illegals in the normal course of duty. The fairly passive illegals don’t resist arrest. But the guards in league with the smugglers respect no rights, and their dirty business allows vermin like Manuel to exploit the illegals mercilessly.
Jack Nicholson’s Charlie is a considerate man. The movie implies that the corruption around him is a symptom of a degraded working class America. J.J. is a disgusting alcoholic criminal and murderer, but Cat and Red are equally guilty, morally-impaired lowlifes. They rationalize their greed as ‘making the best of a bad situation.’ They don’t care how they get their money, as long as it’s got.
The filmmaking Coen brothers have been lambasted for ridiculing rural American ‘deplorables,’ but The Border goes much further. The script is unflinchingly brutal (honest?) in its depiction of Charlie and Cat’s wives. Marcy and Savannah are militantly ignorant, greedy and selfish. They talk like goody-goody teenagers but snap like dogs when they’re not getting what they want. Marcy is an irresponsible airhead determined to buy what she wants; when he objects to her irrational demands she takes the attitude of, ‘you’re not keeping your part of my bargain.’ Charlie knows he can’t tell her anything; when he brings María home to clean her leg wound, Marcy is convinced that he’s leaving her and goes ballistic. Cat can’t control the trampy Savannah either; she shoots enticing come-ons at Charlie and drunkenly announces her availability at the barbecues. This fairly accurate picture of the White Trash world does no favors to American culture. Charlie’s efforts to Do The Right Thing make him come off as a knight in shining honor.
The Border is an excellent no-shortcuts production on all counts, with convincing art direction and fine cinematography that doesn’t try to make things look pretty. Some of violence and one strip show are pretty graphic, lending the picture a hard- ‘R’ even though the language isn’t too rough. We’re told that the original preview cut had an ending so nihilistic that a slight re-shoot was undertaken. The slight uplift of María and Charlie’s final meeting mid-stream in the Rio Grande at least leaves us on a positive note. An abrupt freeze frame is telltale evidence of a producer’s intervention: the redundant superimposed ‘the end’ title says ‘quickie re-edit’ all over it.
Jack Nicholson goes through what must have been a grueling shoot like a trouper. If he played Charlie as an innocent nothing would work, but Nicholson communicates the frustration of struggling within a moral compromise. Charlie doesn’t care about the law, but he certainly doesn’t want to see people treated like this. Harvey Keitel and Valerie Perrine are shown no mercy — their unpleasant characters remind us of Luis Buñuel’s conviction that being poor and uneducated makes nobody noble, just the opposite. Warren Oates’ Red isn’t in the picture much but I’m not thinking that his role was necessarily larger in the earlier cut.
Innocent, almost doe-like Elpidia Carrillo accurately depicts an ordinary woman in the middle of an unending ordeal. Ethnic women are stereotypically assumed to be better equipped to withstand bad conditions, but at one point we find María at a point of total despair. Manuel has forced her into prostitution with the false goal that she can ‘earn’ the return of her baby. The nasty opportunist has learned the same rules that the American overlords play by — exploit the weak by whatever means available.
Charlie isn’t fully aware of all of these details, but we definitely are. When he seizes the opportunity to fight back and save the day, we’re ready to accept any positive outcome no matter how melodramatic. I like The Border because it delivers the expected suspense and excitement — and I think it’s truthful for its time and place.
In 1982 was America already many years into the cartel-organized drug explosion? Our network news ends each of its broadcasts with cute stories about animals, children and noble soldiers, but illegals are covered only when politicians argue about them in abstract terms. Meanwhile, the border situation for illegals and ordinary Mexicans has worsened into a lawless slaughterhouse that goes largely unreported.
Indicator’s Region B Blu-ray of The Border (1982) is an excellent encoding of this Universal Pictures- sourced thriller from the year of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Universal insists that the region coding be followed, so the disc is not playable in normal U.S. equipment.
The fine widescreen Panavision cinematography looks very good. Vilmos Zsigmond was the first D.P. until a hiatus wrecked the film’s schedule and mandated his replacement. Many scenes use zoom lenses to excellent effect. I had only seen the picture pan-scanned on TV, and didn’t realize how handsome it was.
The soundtrack features music and occasional songs by Ry Cooder, whose South Texas twangs go well with vocalists Freddy Fender and John Hiatt.
Nick Pinkerton provides an excellent commentary packed with info on Tony Richardson’s direction, the state of the border in the early 1980s and lots of production details, including the last-minute re-shoot. The Border was apparently plagued by a huge cost overrun, eventually costing a multiple of its initial budget. Also, associates of Richardson are heard in a lengthy audio recording of a lecture in 1991 after a screening of his Blue Sky, which had been shelved because Orion Pictures had just gone under and couldn’t release it. The trailer is present as well, along with an image gallery. The original poster cover illustration sets up The Border as a critique of America. The stratum of citizen depicted in the show has become a very frightening voting block.
The initial release contains an illustrated booklet (details below) that was not provided for review. The check disc I reviewed is described as being identical to the final product.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Border (1982)
Region B Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Audio Commentary with critic and film historian Nick Pinkerton; The Guardian Lecture with Tony Richardson (1991); trailer, image gallery; Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by author Scott Harrison, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and historic articles on the film.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 21, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson