Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Noir City Northwest: Reign of Terror (1949)/Border Incident (1949)

Director Anthony Mann concentrated on noir for only a few years in the 1940s, but over that stretch he created some of the genre’s signature films. Railroaded!, T-Men, Raw Deal. On the last two, he collaborated with John Alton, the rare cinematographer who wasn’t afraid of the dark. It’s only fitting that Noir City day five spotlighted lesser known works from these masters of shadow.

It’s official: Reign of Terror is the strangest movie screened in the festival so far. It’s the French Revolution as crime drama. The surprise is how easily history falls into the noir dynamic. You’ve got Robespierre (Richard Basehart), “fanatic of powdered wig and twisted mind,” as your kingpin making a power grab. The outside muscle (Bob Cummings) who’s not what he appears to be. Arlene Dahl as a femme fatale, and the cops all on the take. A few corners are cut with the story, but it’s refreshing to see a historical drama that doesn’t put the emphasis on spectacle and instead keeps close to the action.

What I’d like to know is why the filmmakers gave France’s past the noir treatment. What’s wrong with American history? Feature it: Robert Ryan as Benedict Arnold, a twitching wreck eaten away by guilt. Or Dan Duryea playing Aaron Burr, always with the chip on his shoulder. “Al Hamilton says he’s a self-made man. Think it’s time somebody maybe unmade him.” Hell, I’d see it. Although that should come as a surprise to exactly no one.

Border Incident is a lot less fanciful. It’s a taut, tough suspense film about a joint U.S./Mexican investigation into the murder of illegal immigrants. George Murphy and Ricardo Montalban play the lead detectives, and noir reliables Charles McGraw and Howard Da Silva turn up as the heavies. It’s sad to realize what’s changed in the span of fifty-plus years in terms of this issue: basically nothing.