Subversive Poet: John Alton on the Border

Border Incident (1949) is perhaps the one film of the remarkable late 40s collaboration among cinematographer John Alton, director Anthony Mann, and writer John C. Higgins, where Alton’s imagery is wholly subversive.  Ostensibly a police procedural about the trafficking of illegal farm workers from Mexico for the farms of Southern California, Alton’s rendering of the desert landscape with a haunting natural light elevates the exploitation of the ‘braceros’ to the realm of tragedy, and from tragedy to a damning political indictment.

Morover, the scene where the undercover agent Jack is murdered by the furrowing blades of a tractor, is one of the most horrific in film noir.  As noted in my Dec 2008 post, Noir Citizenship and Anthony Mann’s Border Incident, Professor Jonathan Auerbach observes that the American  immigration 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”.  Plus ca change plus la meme chose.

I put forward these frames from Border Incident in support.

4 thoughts on “Subversive Poet: John Alton on the Border”

  1. Positively brilliant stuff here–the commentary (dead-on!) and this fantastic screen cap presentation. I saw this film three months ago at the Anthony Mann Film Festival in Manhattan, and was admittedly deeply disturbed looking at that infamous tractor scene, but I totally agree that Alton’s imagery is subversive here. This is a rather underrated film too.


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