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Tag Archives: John Alton

Border Incident (Oct. 28, 1949)

Border Incident
Border Incident (1949)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

If you think that Mexico-U.S. border security and illegal immigration are relatively new issues, check out Anthony Mann’s Border Incident. Watching it today, it’s remarkable how familiar the social and political backdrop feels.

Border Incident is a fictional film, but it’s a composite of actual cases. It begins with the stentorian narration that opened nearly every docudrama from the 1940s, and explains how important migrant labor from Mexico is to the U.S. agricultural industry. The narrator goes on to say that while the vast majority of Mexican farm workers play by the rules, wait their turn, and arrive in the United States with working papers, some go through back channels and slip across the border in order to work illegally.

In Border Incident, Mexican and U.S. law-enforcement agencies join forces not to combat illegal immigration but to protect illegal immigrants who are being victimized in the lawless borderlands. (Police officers going undercover to protect illegal immigrants was also the subject of Joseph Wambaugh’s 1984 nonfiction book Lines and Shadows, which I highly recommend.)

The police officers on the front line of the operation are Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) and Jack Bearnes (George Murphy). Pablo and Jack have worked together before and have an easy friendship, but they don’t get much time together onscreen in Border Incident.

George Murphy

Jack goes undercover as an American fugitive looking to flee the country and cozies up to the vicious leader of the gang who are robbing and killing illegal immigrants. The gang’s leader is named Owen Parkson and he’s played with understated relish by dependable heavy Howard Da Silva. (And speaking of dependable heavies, the great Charles McGraw is also on hand as one of Parkson’s lieutenants.)

Meanwhile, Pablo goes undercover as a migrant laborer looking to put himself at the mercy of the human traffickers who transport desperate men in dangerous and cramped conditions. Will his soft hands give him away? You’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Mitchell and Montalban

Border Incident was one of the last films Anthony Mann made with cinematographer John Alton. Earlier in their careers, Mann and Alton made two of the most visually innovative noirs of all time; T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948).

I didn’t find Border Incident quite as involving as either T-Men or Raw Deal, but visually it’s every bit the equal of those films, maybe even better. It’s full of deep-focus photography that frames two people’s faces — one in the foreground and one in the background — in a way that dials up the tension and paranoia. Day-for-night shooting rarely looks good, but Alton makes it work in Border Incident, which is replete with stunning desert landscapes that are dominated by jagged mountains and that have a sense of claustrophobia despite taking place outdoors.

While Border Incident doesn’t have any of the “We don’t need no steenking batches” types of Mexican caricatures, aside from Montalban’s protagonist, the Mexican characters don’t have much depth. And it’s odd that a film with so much authenticity would cast an Anglo actor, James Mitchell, as the second most prominent Mexican character. (If you’re a fan of soap operas, you might know Mitchell as Palmer Cortlandt on All My Children.)

Minor quibbles aside, however, Border Incident is a top-notch entry in the film noir docudrama genre. It’s a tough, tense, violent film that features extremely impressive cinematography and continually mounting tension. It also made me wonder what Orson Welles’s masterpiece Touch of Evil (1958) would have been like if Ricardo Montalban (an actual Mexican) had been cast in the lead role instead of Charlton Heston (a fake Mexican).

He Walked by Night (Nov. 24, 1948)

He Walked by Night
He Walked by Night (1948)
Directed by Alfred L. Werker
Bryan Foy Productions / Eagle-Lion Films

He Walked by Night is a police procedural directed by Alfred L. Werker, with uncredited directorial assistance from Anthony Mann. The starkly lighted cinematography is by John Alton, who had previously worked with Mann on two of his most memorable film noirs: T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948).

Docudrama films were a popular genre after World War II. The genre began with documentarian and newsreel producer Louis de Rochemont’s purportedly true espionage stories The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), as well as his fact-based legal drama Boomerang (1947).

Producer Mark Hellinger and director Jules Dassin’s film The Naked City (1948) wasn’t based on any single true incident, but it sought to depict realistic police work — a team of detectives recording the details of a crime scene, interviewing witnesses, tracking down leads, and pursuing suspects.

He Walked by Night didn’t invent the police procedural, but it’s probably the single most influential film in the genre. It featured Jack Webb in his first credited role, and his relationship with the film’s technical advisor, LAPD Sgt. Marty Wynn, led to the creation of the radio show Dragnet in 1949. (The series hit television in 1951.)

The film begins with a screen of text explaining that what you’re about to see is a true story, and is based on the case of one of the most diabolically cunning killers ever to be hunted by the police. It ends with the following sentence: “Only the names are changed — to protect the innocent.” Sound familiar, Dragnet fans?

Like every film or book that can properly be called a police procedural, He Walked by Night features a team of police officers and detectives. The lead investigator in the case, Sgt. Marty Brennan, is played by Lawrence Tierney’s little brother, Scott Brady, fresh off a starring role in another docudrama, the “ripped from the headlines” prison escape drama Canon City (1948). The other police officers include Capt. Breen (Roy Roberts), Sgt. Chuck Jones (James Cardwell), and police laboratory technician Lee Whitey (Jack Webb).

Richard Basehart

The meatiest role in the picture belongs to Richard Basehart, who plays Roy Morgan (a.k.a. Roy Martin), an electronics-obsessed former serviceman who — in the tense opening scene of the film — graduates from breaking & entering to murder.

Basehart delivers a lean, mean performance. He has some great scenes with his fence, Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell), but other than that he has very little dialogue. The film hangs on his performance, and he’s completely believable as an endlessly resourceful sociopath who’s able to elude the police through a combination of planning and luck. (The character was inspired by the real-life case of Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker, who went on a crime spree in 1945 and 1946.)

He Walked by Night in the Sewers

It’s a cliche to say that the real star of a film noir is its cinematography, but it’s usually true. John Alton’s photography consistently gives the low-budget film an intense, driving atmosphere. Nearly ever shot in the film is a masterwork of lighting and composition, culminating in the final chase through the Los Angeles sewer system.

He Walked by Night is currently in the public domain, so it can be seen on YouTube (below), and is available on DVD from a variety of companies. The only caveat is that some of them look pretty lousy, so noir fans who want to own this film on DVD are advised to pick up the disc from MGM and to avoid at all costs the cheapo disc from Alpha Video, which looks just terrible.

Canon City (June 30, 1948)

Crane Wilbur’s Canon City is a low-budget entry in the docudrama genre, a genre that began in 1945 with the Louis de Rochemont-produced espionage melodrama The House on 92nd Street and enjoyed enormous popularity in post-war Hollywood.

Docudramas were dramatizations of actual events that featured actors but that strove for authenticity by filming in actual locations, using real documents in key scenes, and featuring participants in the case playing themselves in bit parts.

After The House on 92nd Street followed more fact-based spy thrillers like 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) and The Iron Curtain (1948), and legal docudramas like Boomerang (1947) and Call Northside 777 (1948).

Some films, like Kiss of Death (1947), T-Men (1947), and The Naked City (1948), were mostly fictional, but were presented in a docudrama fashion and filmed on location to add authenticity to otherwise run-of-the-mill crime stories.

Canon City uses a combination of docudrama techniques. It begins in a straightforward documentary style, and slowly draws us into the fictional world of its incarcerated protagonists. The obligatory scroll of text that opens the film informs the viewer that all events depicted in the film are based on actual events that took place in and around the Colorado State Prison in Canon City on the night of December 30, 1947. (Canon City is pronounced “Canyon City,” and is sometimes spelled Cañon City.) It goes on to say that the convicts shown in the film are the actual convicts involved in the case, and that Roy Best, the warden of the prison, plays himself. Finally, we are told that “the details of the break are portrayed exactly as they occurred and were photographed where they happened.”

Reed Hadley narrates the opening in his signature style (docudramas provided a lot of work for Hadley). He describes the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City as “a home for those who like to have their own way too much, and have taken forbidden steps to achieve their aims. All kinds are here; murderers, kidnappers, thieves, robbers, embezzlers.”

Warden Best and the disembodied voice of Hadley lead the viewer on a tour of the prison, introducing the variety of work that the prisoners do and conducting short interviews with actual inmates of various types; a man soon to be paroled, an old man who’s been doing time since 1897, a 14-year-old murderer sentenced to 20-30 years who’s working on a hooked rug in the art shop, and a murderer whose death sentence was commuted to life by the warden, and who now hopes to be paroled in 1949.

We then see the process of nighttime lockdown, and at the 9-minute mark of the film Hadley’s narration introduces the viewer to a pair of inmates with adjoining cells: Jim Sherbondy, a 29-year-old inmate who was sentenced at the age of 17 for killing a police officer, and Johnson, a long-termer who is working on the model of a ship. (His real work — a zip gun — is hidden behind the ship. He’s part of a plan to break out.)

Hadley’s narration doesn’t stop after Sherbondy and Johnson are introduced, and the film continues in a semi-documentary style, but the introduction of these two characters marks the moment when the film moves from fact to fiction. Remember that opening text from the beginning of the film I mentioned? The one that said “The convicts you will see are the actual convicts”?

Well, this was clearly a lie, since Sherbondy and Johnson are both played by actors, not actual convicts. This is par for the course, though. Despite what they invariably claimed, docudramas in the ’40s usually had a tricky relationship with the truth.

I couldn’t figure out who the uncredited actor who plays Johnson is (if you know, please comment on this review), but Sherbondy is played by Scott Brady, the younger brother of notorious tough-guy actor Lawrence Tierney. (Lawrence Tierney and Scott Brady’s youngest brother, Edward Tierney, who turned 20 years old in 1948, also had a career in the movies starting in the ’50s.) Brady was born Gerard Kenneth Tierney, and Canon City was his first major film acting role, and the first film in which he was credited as “Scott Brady.” (His first appearance was a small role in Sam Newfield’s 1948 film The Counterfeiters, in which he was credited as “Gerard Gilbert.”)

Brady bears an uncanny resemblance to his older brother, but his face is a little softer and more innocent-looking, which works well for his role in Canon City. Sherbondy is a reluctant participant in the breakout. He has a job in the prison’s photography shop working in the darkroom, which is the perfect place for the conspirators to hide a load of zip guns, since the darkroom requires guards to wait outside until it’s safe to turn the lights on and open the door.

I wonder if anyone who saw Canon City during its initial theatrical run noticed Brady’s resemblance to Lawrence Tierney, or if there were any astute viewers who noticed the slim, bespectacled Whit Bissell and said to themselves, “Hey, wasn’t that guy in Brute Force?”

I also wonder how many viewers didn’t specifically recognize any of the actors but were able to tell that they were watching actors and not the actual participants in the case. And if they did, did they feel cheated after the opening claim of total and complete veracity?

I wonder these things because I do think that Canon City is remarkably skillful in the way it draws the viewer in and the way it manages to feel raw and real throughout. A little before the half-hour mark, the breakout kicks into high gear with an assault on a guard and a furious rush to fit all the pieces of the plan together. For nearly an hour, Canon City is as tense a picture as one could ask for. A dozen men pour out into a snowy night, disguised as prison guards. The prison alarm tolls throughout the small town. Terrified moviegoers swarm out of a theater whose marquee shows the Abbott and Costello comedy The Noose Hangs High (which wasn’t released until the spring of 1948, incidentally) and people on the streets rush to get home. But home offers no solace, as the convicts break into house after house looking for shelter, food, and weapons.

The cinematographer of Canon City was John Alton, who was responsible for brilliant work on many film noirs (most notably his collaborations with Anthony Mann). There aren’t a lot of memorable “noir” setups in Canon City, but overly stylized lighting wouldn’t have fit with the docudrama approach to the material. The darkness and the driving blizzard are terrifying enough filmed in a straightforward fashion. Canon City is the kind of movie where the cold gets into your bones just watching it.

Canon City is a film that is dated in many ways, but it still packs a punch if you can go along with the semi-documentary style. Writer-director Crane Wilbur gets the most out of his limited budget by filming inside the prison and in the rugged beauty of the southern Colorado landscape around Cañon City, and the pacing is swift and brutal once the breakout occurs.

Oh, and if you’re a Star Trek fan, keep your eyes peeled for a young DeForest Kelley as one of the dozen escapees.

T-Men (Dec. 15, 1947)


T-Men (1947)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Eagle-Lion Films

Anthony Mann’s T-Men sneaks up on you like a sap-wielding mug in a dark alley.

For the first 10 minutes or so, it seems like just another docudrama about the heroic exploits of undercover government agents — like Henry Hathaway’s films The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) — right down to the stentorian voice-over narration by Reed Hadley, the guy who always did the stentorian narration in patriotic docudramas.

The title and opening credits of the film appear superimposed over the Seal of the United States Department of the Treasury as triumphant music plays. Then a disclaimer appears explaining that all the U.S. currency in the film was reproduced with special permission of the Treasury Department, and that reproduction of said currency is strictly prohibited. (Don’t film yourself fanning out a bunch of sawbucks at home, kids!)

Then the former chief coordinator of the law enforcement agencies of the Treasury Department, Elmer Lincoln Irey, haltingly reads from a piece of paper and explains the six units of the Treasury Department: “The Intelligence Unit, which tracks down income tax violators, the Customs Agency Service, with the border patrol, which fights smuggling, the Narcotics Unit, the Secret Service, which guards the president and ferrets out counterfeiters, the Alcohol Tax unit, which uncovers bootleggers, and the Coast Guard. These are the six fingers of the Treasury Department fist. And that fist hits fair, but hard.” (Incidentally, the mild-looking, bespectacled Irey was one of the men who brought down Capone. He also worked on the Lindbergh kidnapping case.)

Irey goes on to say that what we’re about to see is called “The Shanghai Paper Case,” a composite of actual counterfeiting cases tackled by the Treasury Department.

Over the course of the first couple of reels, however, it becomes clear that T-Men is a very different film from The House on 92nd Street, and that its dry, fact-filled introduction is only the tip of the iceberg.

McGraw and Ford

Although Reed Hadley’s hokey narration occasionally dominates the proceedings, the script is tight and the actors are all excellent. Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder, who play undercover treasury agents Dennis O’Brien and Tony Genaro, are solidly believable, and Wallace Ford — who plays “The Schemer” — is always fun to watch, but for my money, the most memorable character in the film is “Moxie,” played by the granite-jawed Charles McGraw. Moxie is a merciless thug who shoots men dead without blinking, breaks fingers as easily as he asks questions, and boils a man to death in a steam bath without changing his expression.

But it’s not just the sudden, brutal acts of violence or the sense of paranoia that suffuses T-Men that set it apart from other films of its ilk, it’s also the dimly lit, “you are there” cinematography by John Alton.

O'Keefe and McGraw

Director Mann and the studio had faith in Alton, and pretty much let him do whatever he wanted. Alton, quoted in the press book for T-Men,* said “…we shot scenes just as they came along. We shot under all conditions. Some of our night shots were made without any lights at all. I know some people thought the scenes wouldn’t match and it would turn out to be a horrible mess. Fortunately, it turned out as I was sure it would.”

T-Men was Mann’s first collaboration with Alton, but it wouldn’t be his last. Together they would go on to make Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (1948) (which Alfred Werker directed and Mann co-directed), Reign of Terror (1949), Border Incident (1949), and Devil’s Doorway (1950).

Alton and Mann’s contribution to what we now call “film noir” is enormous. T-Men is a great picture. It’s tense, violent, and looks amazing. Despite its low budget, it was a big hit when it was released, and it’s still fresh today.

*And cribbed by yours truly from Alan K. Rode’s fantastic book Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy.

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