In this series-depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, and so many other things, are quite fleeting-I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access.
In this, the fourth in my limited series of film observations, I want to focus on two hard hitting social issue films, one from the late 1940’s and the other from the early 1950’s. The twist for me, an element of both films, is that both starred actors who went on to interesting careers as politicians. Republican politicians. Californian politicians. One even became President.
As for my two selections, they both have perspectives that still simmer today: Anthony Mann’s Border Incident, and Stewart Heisler’s Storm Warning.
I do not remember the first time I saw Border Incident. It was certainly less than ten years ago. I have watched it a few times since, especially since the 2016 American election that spent so much time dissecting Donald Trump’s animus to those who live south of his border and who have, as they have done for decades, sought sanctuary and a future in an often unwelcoming and, at best, ambivalent country.
Border Incident begins with a documentary-like narration about the business of agriculture in California, the brilliance of the water system, and the need for laborers. Farm workers.
Shortly, we meet our two heroes, Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy, Federal policemen from opposite sides of the border. They have worked together before and there is an excellent camaraderie.
The challenge is clear. People from Mexico are not only being smuggled into California to slave away as farm laborers, they are, whilst on their way home to Mexico, being robbed and murdered. To cut off the head of the murderous people-smuggling snake, Montalban will go undercover as a bracero. Murphy will also go undercover, basically trying to keep tabs on Montalban’s journey. As Montalban’s boss summarizes, “It’s a good plan. Since the criminals’ work in a circle, we’ll cover the circle.”
The two men enter a grim, seemingly hopeless world, a twilight zone of shadows, of dark deadly times. The smugglers are heartless. The braceros are slaves. John Alton’s cinematography captures the agonizingly endless passage through the desert night. Though not everything always goes all that well, the gang, such as it is, is mostly efficient. The cheap labour, including Montalban’s cop, reaches their destination. Plans do go awry, however. Villainy always seem to have these types of interruptions. We can be thankful for that.
Eventually though, before the villains earn their just desserts served to them on the proverbial platter, this dark film takes an even more treacherous turn than we might have expected from a late 1940’s movie. On the other hand, just a few years earlier, the world learned a few terrible lessons about the capacity of mankind to go beyond evil: Hitler’s Death Camps, his “final solution” for one. The unleashing of the A Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki for another.
So, whatever does happen towards the end of Border Incident, it pales in comparison to the holocaust. Nevertheless, it has a quite personal ending and carries a cinematic punch.
Supporting Cast: Border Incident has a rich field of great character actors. Howard Da Silva is stupendously smarmy in the film. A couple of years later, this talented thespian was victimized by the HUAC blacklist.
James Mitchell, an actor who didn’t appear in many films (he had a later thirty year run in the soap opera, All My Children…and no, I never watched it) appears in Border Incident as Juan Garcia, an everyman seeking a better life.
Also appearing in the film is one of the all-time great noir actors, Charles McGraw. McGraw could play hero or villain with barely a change of expression. He starred in one of my favourite noirs, The Narrow Margin. Of note, he also starred in the short lived 1955-56 nine-episode series, Casablanca…eschewing the Bogart role.
Although the rest of the Border Incident ensemble cast is spot on, I would like to mention one other: Alfonso Bedeyo. If you have had the opportunity to watch John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, you will remember Bedeyo. He was Gold Hat…famous for spouting, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges.”
Storm Warning is a fascinating film. Its portrayal of the KKK is quite frightening and yet, even with all the hooded night riding (or driving) and grown men being boys engaged in semi-anthropomorphic behaviour, somehow it misses the full mark This may have been intentional. However, intentional or not, it hits an interesting noirish target. From the moment Ginger Rogers gets off the bus, irritating her manager who hopelessly reminds her that she has responsibilities further down the line, the stage is set. Ginger wants to meet up with her sister, a youthful looking Doris Day (even though she was twenty-eight or so at the time, so I guess she was still fairly young) who has recently gotten hitched.
Big sister is checking out the new guy.
Ginger arrives in the southern town at a nervous moment. Something is off. As she seeks help to find her sister, doors are closed. The locals are abrupt. The scene as she walks towards the hamburger joint is classic noir. Lights. Shadows. An altogether eerie night. Moments later, walking the dark streets, stores and streetlights are turned off in sequence. And then, in a second, just as she rounds a corner, a dozen hooded Klansman drag a man out of the County Jail. They whip him. He runs. And is shot. He drops at her feet. Stepping back, further into the dark, she witnesses the Klan run up to the fallen man. Cowering in the shadows, she conveniently is able to see that two of the Klan have removed their hoods.
Interestingly, after the KKK flee, Ginger appropriately rushes up to check on the poor fellow on the ground. Off in the distance, lights come on in the jail. Ginger takes flight. Not quite the actions of a good citizen. Anyways, she runs through the dark city streets. Earlier she had asked directions to the town recreation centre, the place where she knew her sister worked.
From thereon, soap. Fifties soap. A little dirt of course. Early on it is revealed that one of the Klansman is Ginger’s new brother-in-law. Steve Cochran. Cochran is classic passive aggressive. A handsome fellow by port-war standards, he often played tough guys with squirmy tendencies. He does not disappoint this time.
After Ginger is introduced to her new brother-in-law, recognizes him as one of the Klansman, this potboiler begins to boil over.
We meet Ronnie Reagan at this point. He is the DA. Burt Rainey. This is not the first lynching. They know it is the Klan. The victim this time was a reporter. A northern reporter. The officials know everyone is afraid. As one cowering citizen says, “Please Mr. Rainey. Don’t ask me any questions. I don’t want to lie to you…a mob that did what those people did tonight would burn me out like that,” and he snaps his fingers.
As Rainey talks with one of his investigators, that fellow mentions that he used to belong to the Klan. His reasoning is simple enough: “I thought it was something to do good. You know, to help people…” When asked why he quit, he says. “Found out it was a lot of bunk. A bunch of hoodlums dressed up in sheets.”
Back at her sister’s house, the tension is palpable. We watch Ginger’s stare. She is clearly angry, afraid, indecisive. Finally, she confronts her new brother-in-law. The fat is in the fire. The cat is out of the bag. One of those, anyways. After some hysterics, Ginger agrees to scurry out of town in the morning. Cochran’s character goes for a walk…a run through the dark streets…to the Rec Center. Bowling Alley Noir at its finest. A wonderful set piece. Pins crashing. The whole town seems there. Everyone looks guilty.
The treadmill of discovery rolls on. Ginger is interviewed, acknowledges that there were hooded men. She is kept in town to testify at the inquest. The Klan in this movie, deadly though it is, turns out to be something watered down, something separate from the real world. Its racial xenophobia is underplayed. It is almost as if the characterization by the script writers is that they are are, as Trump so pathetically declared a couple of years ago, “very fine people on both sides.“
Is there a happy ending? No. It’s noir. But it has an ending. There’s some comfort in that.
Some Political Second Thoughts:
Murphy and Reagan followed somewhat similar theatrical and political paths. In fact, Murphy served as the President of the Screen Actors Guild (A labour union formed in the early 1930’s to improve the lot of performers and reduce the strangle hold of the major studios in the lives of those performers.) from 1944-1946. Reagan served as President of SAG for two time periods (1947-1952) and a return engagement for one further year, 1959.
Though Reagan was a democrat early in his career, he transformed over the years into a Republican. He garnered a huge public profile by being the host of General Electric Theater, a weekly television anthology series that ran from 1954-62. This exposure enhanced his public profile and no doubt aided his entry into politics. Reagan served as the Governor of California from 1967-75. He tried to parlay his political credentials in 1976 when he sought the Republican Party Presidential nomination. He barely lost to Gerry Ford who subsequently went down to defeat to Jimmy Carter. Four years later, Reagan crushed Jimmy Carter’s quest for a second term. Reagan served as President for two terms from 1981-89.
Murphy was elected senator from California in 1964. He was defeated in his 1970 re-election attempt by Democrat John Tunney, son of famous prizefighter, Gene Tunney.
In 1965, in response to a public statement by Murphy about the willingness of Americans to do farm labour, folksinger/satirist Tom Lehrer wrote a song that captured and perhaps partially sunk Murphy’s career. Murphy’s early years as a song and dance man was mentioned humorously by Lehrer.
A final note, perhaps gratuitous. Montalban’s first feature role was in Border Incident. That same year, he had a small role in the comedy musical western, The Kissing Bandit. Though not a song and dance man like his Border Incident co-star, he danced well enough in that film. And his green ensemble…to die for.
Both these films certainly tried to deal with serious social issues. While neither really solved the issues they portrayed, they undoubtedly have given us a window back in time. Even with their flaws, that should be appreciated.
Thank you for your time.
About Bill Engleson:
I am a Canadian author with two books, my 2013 novel, Like a Child to Home, and my 2016 collection of humorous literary essays titled Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul.
I write flash fiction, essays, poetry, and reviews and have two larger projects that ever so slowly get my dwindling attention including my first novel’s prequel, Drawn Towards the Sun
My occasionally added-to-website/blog is http://www.engleson.ca
Hey, I found the movie thearter at the Ranch after running into at the Saloon. Border Incident would indeed be a good film to watch as a window back in time. I remember the ranches my family worked for employed immigrant hands, too. They often traveled back and forth, some brought their families. I had a good friend, Sammy, who was from Mexico. We used to ride horses together and he once made me a leather coin purse (yes, he had skills as a kid).
The poster for Storm Warning greatly disturbs me. Not the very fine people but the very oppressed women. Ronnie in a slanted hat doesn’t give me confidence. These films will be interesting to watch with a current affairs lense. Thanks for sharing your film knowledge, Bill!
I have enjoyed this column very much. I don’t watch movies very often and never know what to watch. Now I do and have a ‘To Be Watched’ pile that I will come back to once I get snowed in. I appreciate all the links.
I’m a little worried the Ranch is turning into a town though, what with its own saloon, theatre, rodeo arena, and bookstore.
The Ranch needs “hands” who arrive with women and kids…I wonder if the next building will be a church…
Thank you for the history lesson and film suggestions. It is sad these social issues are still far from being solved.
Your knowledge of noir is fascinating, Bill. I don’t know either of these films, but of course know Ronald Reagan. My memoir is a story told over three years, 1978 – 1981, not so many years after Vietnam and just as Reagan and Margaret Thatcher take their seats on the world theatre. What different times, eh? The historical backdrop of the two films is a good reminder of how things used to be and makes us wonder just how far have we really come in light of today’s politics…but we won’t go there. Great series, Bill, thoroughly enjoy them.
I might have mentioned this before, Bill, but I’m always disappointed what little difference political films – and novels too – seem to make to real-world political behaviours.
Great article and love the photo of your reflection in another kind of silver screen.