Anthony Mann and John Alton make an unbeatable team and this violent noir/police procedural is one of their very best collaborations.
The story is framed, with voice over narration, as a police procedural. It’s unusual in that it is a collaboration between the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Mexican police. The agencies are working together to uncover a vicious gang that has been exploiting Mexicans entering the country illegally to work as farm laborers in the Imperial Valley. The narration stresses that farmers, and thus consumers, rely on Mexican labor, the bulk of which is entering the country legally under the Bracero Program.
We are introduced to agents Jack Bearnes (George Murphy) and Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) who will work undercover to get close to the bad guys. Pablo poses as a bracero. His chance comes when he befriends Juan Garcia, a humble Mexican who has been patiently waiting for days for his turn to enter legally. Pablo persuades Juan to show him how to jump the queue by paying an alien smuggler. Juan decides to join Pablo on the dangerous journey.
Pablo gets spotted early on for his “soft” hands but manages to convince the smugglers that he is a fugitive from justice. He witnesses first hand the brutality of the smugglers who think nothing of murdering any Mexican who becomes an “inconvenience” in any way.
In the meantime, Jack is posing as a man offering some stolen immigration papers for sale. He has not counted on the greed of the smugglers who immediately send a bunch of thugs (headed by Alfonso Bedoya, Gold Hat in Treasure of the Sierra Madre) to see if they can get the papers the easy way. Fortunately, he does not have the papers with him and he eventually lead across the border to Owen Parkson (Howard DaSilva), the American connection for the operation. Pablo and Juan happen to be located at the same place. Both Jack and Pablo will be in desperate danger for the remainder of the film. With Charles McGraw as one of Parkson’s goons.
I loved this. Most of it takes place at night and Alton’s cinematography is just stunning. He is not afraid to cloak many of his shots in blackness leaving only the faces to be picked out by the light. The acting is uniformly good. For me, the standouts were Da Silva’s calm business-like monster and Alfonso Bedoya, who must be the world’s scariest Mexican. Mann keeps the pace measured, which only heightens the sudden brutality of the action sequences. Highly recommended.
Much of the film was made on location not far from where I live. My town is mentioned by name.
John Sayles talks about the film – Trailers from Hell