In not particularly remarkable that Mann made films in both genres, as most directors in the 1940’s and 1950’s were expected to make films in any genre the studio selected. The unique quality was in the way he transitioned, making almost exclusively noirs in the 1940’s and primarily westerns in the 1950’s (he would transition again, this time to sprawling epics, for a notable stint in the 1960’s). In a casual sense, based on the setting and time period, it is easy to draw a clear line between his first and second period, yet it’s Mann’s continuity of style and theme that makes his work so interesting.
Of course, the term “film noir” wasn’t known during Anthony Mann’s heyday, and its pretty doubtful that directors like Mann considered the type of films they made to be a genre unto itself (modern academics still argue against the term even being applied as a genre, but fans know better), so it’s not hard to see why the line might get blurred between film noir and, say, gangster films, thrillers, mysteries, etc.
The main action occurs along two lines, both following agents from opposite sides of the border as they adopt criminal identities and insinuate themselves into the system. Pablo Rodriguez pays his way into a group of desperate laborers willing to undergo the danger of cover transport into America while Jack Bearnes arranges to meet with the white ringleaders to sell them stolen work permits (which is probably entrapment, but whatever).
Mann’s two-pronged approach is a great excuse to keep the action coming and the tension constant. The film has the suspense of a good spy film, with all the quiet sneaking and quick-thinking, the nimble physical and verbal escapes, but with none of the high-tech gadgetry to fall back on in a pinch. Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy are on par as Pablo and Jack, sharing the spotlight and alternating the tension and fear. Though they aren’t particularly interesting alone, their interactions and particularly their undercover personas make them quite watchable (the villains are unquestionably more so). I’ll mention that one of them doesn’t make it to the end of the sting operation, but I won’t spoil which one.
The visuals are a real thrill as well, tapping the talents Mann is famous for from both genres. As is often the case in noir, nighttime dominates, swallowing seedy bars and dusty canyons in equal shadow. John Alton, Mann’s frequent cinematographer, is more willing than most to dip things into overwhelming blackness (as he would do most famously in “The Big Combo”), often relying on nothing but silhouettes, though never sacrificing clarity to the point of frustration.
Even an empty field at night takes on a terrifying potential under Mann’s selective lighting and frantic, yet rhythmic, editing.
A more subtle example is the use of bridges in several scenes, a reminder of the many connections across borders (Mexico/California, legal/illegal, etc.) that have both productive and destructive implications.
One interesting effect of Anthony Mann shooting on the noir/western borderlands is his use of deep focus and staging in depth. By the mid-1950’s Cinemascope had become de rigueur for westerns and the increased edge-to-edge real-estate reduced the need for layered staging in depth. “Border Incident” comes at a time where it can benefit from Mann’s location shooting while still using noirish deep focus effects that would make even Welles and Wyler proud.
Walrus Rating: 7.5