“Don’t you tell me ’bout your law and order”

The other day we watched Border Incident, Anthony Mann’s 1949 film which bridged his noir and western periods. I probably put it in my queue back during noir106, and it showed up on the eve of western106. All part of that lattice of coincidence.

While the West has a certain mythic quality to Americans – a place of freedom, a place where people can go and make of it what they want, make of themselves what they want – in this film it’s essentially a place of slavery. That’s the noir influence. There’s a long history of noir/Mexico connections, from The Postman Always Rings Twice through Touch of Evil, although for the most part south of the border was a place people went to, or tried to get to, rather than came from. Here we have a story of human trafficking of seasonal farmworkers. That adds more to the lattice of coincidence, given that immigration features prominently in current political debate.

Following the credits, the film opens up with a mini-documentary, complete with the uplifting narration, about the glories of the American agriculture industry, and the benefits it provides to the migrant farmworkers (braceros) from Mexico. The narrator speaks of the Imperial Valley and the All-American Canal, two names that underscore just how mutual those benefits are, even as the narrator says:.

For the Imperial Valley of California…
…like many other farm areas of the great Southwest…
…is almost entirely dependent on Mexican labor.

The scene then shifts to three braceros getting hunted, robbed and killed by bandits as they were trying to make their way back into Mexico. The victims are dumped into quicksand. The story goes on to investigate the illegal importation of workers, to a climactic scene where the American undercover agent gets ground into the earth under farm equipment. “Unto dust you shall return,” as the saying goes.

Noir films often had flawed heroes, and lacked the clear-cut morality of the typical Westerns of the era. While Border Incident has the noir appearance, thanks to cinematographer John Alton and Mann’s direction, the heroes are heroic and the bad guys are clearly villains. The heroes even joke about the possibility that they might die during the investigation:

A fella could get himself killed that way, couldn’t he?
Well, this is one of the less attractive aspects of the job.

The morality of the overarching situation is a bit different though. The Mexican Farm Labor Agreement established the bracero program in 1942 to make up for the labor shortage due to WWII. The agriculture industry had the program extended after the war to maintain the profits from the cheaper labor. While the law was supposed to protect workers, it was applied and enforced for the benefit of the employers, who could hire illegal workers with impunity.

As another coincidence, the movie was filmed just after the plane crash that inspired Woody Guthrie’s classic song, “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee),” which lamented the unnamed workers who died in the accident.

But the movie closes on a triumphant note, with awards and applause and all that, as our narrator from the opening comes back on:

And so this action in the desert was concluded.
Murder, robbery, rescue.
All these things that are true and part of the record.
Here, in a simple ceremony at the governor’s palace in Mexicali…
…Mexico’s highest honor is awarded posthumously to Inspector Jack Bearnes.
And here, too, is presented to Pablo Rodriguez…
…America’s recognition for his contribution…
…in destroying and rounding up the human vultures…
…who prey on unsuspecting victims.
The life in the valley goes on.
The food is brought from the earth…
…by the hands of the workers, now safe and secure…
…living under the protection of two great republics…
…and the bounty of God Almighty.

 

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