Jonathan Auerbach is professor of English at the University of Maryland, and is currently writing a book titled ‘Dark Borders: The Un-Americaness of Film Noir’.
Professor Auerbach, in a recent issue of the scholarly Cinema Journal (47, No. 4, Summer 2008) in an article titled Noir Citizenship: Anthony Mann’s Border Incident, posits an ambitious thesis about national borders and the borders of film genres, as set out in the article’s abstract:
Looking closely at how images subvert words in Anthony Mann’s generic hybrid Border Incident (1949), this article develops the concept of noir citizenship, exploring how Mexican migrant workers smuggled into the United States experience dislocation and disenfranchisement in ways that help us appreciate film noir’s relation to questions of national belonging.
The article offers a rich analysis of Anthony Mann’s Border Incident (1949), and develops a fascinating study of the sometimes antagonistic dynamic between the police procedural plot imperatives of the screenplay, and the subversive visual imagery fashioned by cinematographer John Alton. It is essential reading for anyone interested in film noir.
Professor Auerbach’s conclusions are compelling, but to my mind can be taken further. In his final paragraph he says:
Throughout, I have been using the word ‘noir’ as a noun and adjective in ways that inevitably suggest that the term has some substantive, intrinsic meaning, just as I have similarly referred to ‘America’ and ‘Mexico’ as fixed entities. But, as… other scholars have insisted, ‘film noir’ as coined by the French soon after World War II had absolutely no institutional bearing on American studio production and marketing during the 1940s (unlike Westerns or musicals), and took on critical significance in the United States only as a generic category well after the fact. In this regard, it makes more sense to think of film noir less as a bounded genre that a ‘meta-genre’—a threshold concept, or better yet, a concept or mode that tests the very permeability and limits of borders… In the case of Border Incident—especially due to Alton’s cinematography—what cannot be named in terms of generic narrative is the elemental muck and chaos that underlies civilization (contra the Western), the lack of any moral compensation for injustice (contra the social problem film), and, most profoundly, the exercise of law based on nothing but the sovereign nation’s capacity to invoke at will a state of exception or emergency (contra the police procedural). These truths do not themselves constitute the content of Border Incident, and cannot be contained by the generic label ‘film noir’. But in so powerfully probing boundaries, they do compel us to consider how genres are made and remade, and nations as well.
The scene in Border Incident where the undercover agent Jack, is murdered by the furrowing blades of a tractor is one of the most horrific in film noir, and Professor Auerbach rightly observes that the agent “gets ground into American soil by the monstrous machinery of US agribusiness… [this is] a purely noir moment of recognition that reveals the terrifying underbelly of the American farm industry itself in its dependence on and ruthless exploitation of Mexican labor”.
But Professor Auerbach skirts the irony of the history of wider US involvement in Central and South America, where the integrity of national borders has been ignored and the poor exploited in the service of US strategic and corporate interests.