Border Incident + A Digression on Noir

George Murphy in Border Incident (dir. Anthony Mann, 1949).

This is one of those movies that people argue about over whether it is or isn't noir. I guess it's about time I offered my own definition of noir, and in so doing show why I believe Border Incident qualifies. I divide the elements of noir into three essential categories, and four variable ones. A film might count as noir even if it only meets the three essential qualifications, but if exhibits one or more of the four variables as well, it's noir for sure.
1. Theme revolves around crime, often though not always in an urban setting. At least some major characters are themselves criminals, some of whom may be corrupted law enforcement officials or other representatives of authority.
2. Story includes elements that problematize conventional narrative models of morality, justice, heroism, etc. In some cases, the central character or characters may elicit a certain amount of audience identification despite acting in illegal, amoral, or even cruelly violent ways. Films noir often eschew a Hollywood "happy ending" in favor of a more downbeat resolution, which might include prison or even death for the protagonist(s). Many of the exceptions to this tendency are the result of film board censorship or studio interference rather than directorial choice.
3. Technical apparatus of the film calls attention to itself via vivid stylization that nevertheless remains generally circumscribed by realist parameters. For example, the lighting frequently emphasizes play of light and shadow, often in high contrast, and there may be a preponderance of canted camera angles and other means of achieving skewed visual perspectives. The standard take is that these techniques complement and enhance the unstable moral and psychological timbre of the stories.
1. Presence of a femme fatale.
2. "Snappy" sticomythic dialogue, often between a man and a woman.
3. A mise en scene that features certain stock elements of the urban crime melodrama, such as flashing neon hotel signs, light through venetian blinds, wet city streets at night, smoky bars and pool halls, dimly lit police stations, fleabag hotel rooms, etc.
4. A general sense, as in "naturalist" nineteenth-century French fiction, that the world is corrupt and no one can be trusted. Rather than "good" or "bad," characters tend to be either "weak" (victims, drudges, rats) or "strong" (bosses, goons, vamps). Men are wolves and women are "dames." The police are often ineffectual and/or crooked. Life is appetitive, vicious, dangerous.

This schema could be tweaked in various ways, but it'll do for a starting point.

Anyway, the noir status of Mann's Border Incident has been questioned because both protagonists--Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy--are completely straight arrows, neither of them in any way morally compromised by the dark world of crime and violence they enter into as undercover operatives. They represent law and order unproblematically, and the picture they present of US-Mexican police cooperation is optimistic (naive) in the extreme. The corny flag-waving frame structure of the narrative in particular can make the film seem like a pretty unsubtle piece of governmental propaganda. All this countered, however, by the nightmarish atmosphere of the underworld in which most of the story takes place. The villains (especially uber-tough guy Charles McGraw and the uncredited Lynn Whitney as his wife) exude near-tragic menace and desperation. The grisly bandit-murders of braceros trying to make their way back across the border with their illegal US wages are deeply horrifying. And one moment in particular--George Murphy's moment of excruciating terror, shown above--flouts Hollywood convention so successfully that I'm frankly almost shocked this movie isn't more famous. John Alton's severe black-and-white photographic composition (he wrote the book Painting with Light) solidifies the accomplishment.