Jonathan Auerbach: Noir Citizenship and Anthony Mann’s Border Incident

Border Incident (1949)

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.

8 thoughts on “Jonathan Auerbach: Noir Citizenship and Anthony Mann’s Border Incident”

  1. I’m a little perplexed by the thesis here: is it that Border Incident, by linking noir and politics, brings out into the open a subtext apparant in many other noir films – the social critique implicit in noir’s twisted and darkened mise en scene and story structures? It seems like that’s what Auerbach is saying, but statements like “a concept or mode that tests the very permeability and limits of borders” seem to take us down some other path, one more specifically related to the film at hand (and not necessarily to other noirs).

    Though I haven’t seen Border Incident, one thought did occur to me in your description: that the blackness of night – the “noir” of the “nuit” – provides a kind of formal nightmare quality to the film’s vision of America, creating a kind of looking-glass reversal of sunny westerns and musicals (though of course, many scenes in those take place at night too), thus doubling the film’s (and perhaps, by extension, the genre’s) ideological reversal with a visual reversal.


  2. Thanks MM for your comment. I have offered only a brief overview of a long article, and I am ready to say that that the issues you raise may stem from my perhaps inadequate representation of Professor Auerbach’s thesis rather than what he actually argues. This said, you have pretty well covered my understanding of the article.

    Hopefully, Professor Auerbach, will respond to my post and your response himself.

    I was directed to his article by a comment he made to this post on FilmsNoir.Net: Wierd


  3. Thanks for your thoughtful comments about my essay on Border Incident, which is part of my book in progress(tentatively titled Dark Borders) that focuses on the concept of uncanny un-Americaness in these movies–strange feelings of non-belonging stemming from a transgression of boundaries, literally national borders in the case of the Mann film. Throughout the book, with detailed readings of movies like Double Indemnity, Stranger on the Third Floor, and Pickup on South Street, I emphasize the political implications of noir, particularly its relation to Cold War redefinitions of citizenship and criminality: native-born members of the USA Communist party, for example, were considered “un-American” and treated like strangers in their own home, despite (or because) of the fact that there are no legal way to take away their citizenhip.


  4. Jonathan, as someone who commented on Tony’s review earlier, thanks for your input and clarification. Your thesis sounds very compelling and hopefully I will be able to read your book when it appears on shelves – I’m always interested in the confluence of history and film, particularly in an era where the confluence was substantially hidden. I’m currently reading Marc Norman’s history of screenwriting (What Happens Next) which contains some interesting stories about the era of communist politics in history (I haven’t yet reached the section on the blacklist). Makes me interested to delve into a whole book on the subject.


  5. Most people who write about noir talk about alienation as if it were some philosophical abstraction connected to existentialism, etc., but I’m trying to give it some historical precision and specificity since the overlap between noir and first stage of Cold War is so close, roughly 1940-58. I date the Cold War from 1940 because from the standpoint of internal security/state of emergency, it mattered little if our foreign enemies from within were Nazis or Soviets.


  6. Sorry for the delay in responding to your posts Jonathon – I have been out of town. Thank your for your comments and for the information on your forthcoming book, which will be a very original work, and will certainly make fascinating reading! I am reminded of Philip Slater’s ‘The Pursuit of Loneliness’ (1970) – my paperback copy of the book has a detail of Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’ (1942) on the cover…

    Thanks MovieMan for your valuable contribution to this discussion.


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