Aliases and slippery identities are an extension of the fantasy of Mexico as a lawless country, but Phil Karlson’s 'Kansas City Confidential' (1952) ups the ante of anonymity.

Border Trouble Comes to Pacific Film Archive

Max Goldberg June 30, 2011

The generic image of film noir is urban, but a surprising number of the best films filed under that slippery rubric venture past the archetypal city limits. Just as elements of the noir style can seep into more stable genres like the Western and melodrama, so too can they harden border towns, the great outdoors and even the familiar confines of the suburbs. A well selected series at the PFA this month (“Going South: American Noir in Mexico”) isolates one such motif and crystallizes a crucial axiom of film noir: The place that looks like an escape is the surest trap.

In the classical Hollywood imagination, the idea of Mexico as an escape belongs to the Western. One thinks of a young John Wayne in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) growing misty at the thought of a little ranch south of the border. In this telling, Mexico is a last gasp frontier—the only place a cowboy can be his own man beyond from the long arm of civilization (Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid memorably shatters this dream). This melancholy idyll began to change during the Cold War era when Mexico came to stand in for the newly christened Third World in films ranging from Viva Zapata (1952) to The Magnificent Seven (1960) to The Wild Bunch (1969). For the films in the “Going South” series, however, Mexico represents an existential elsewhere, one having less to do with geopolitics than the white male in crisis. The more sophisticated titles in the series, such as Out of the Past (1947) and Touch of Evil (1958), exhibit differing degrees of self-awareness of this formulation, but the reasons for crossing the border hold to a practical logic. It’s where people go to hide out, wait for a payoff, find a woman, or track a crime.

If asked to pick a single scene to stand in for the whole series, you could do a lot worse than Jane Greer’s entrance as Kathie in Out of the Past. Jeff Bailey (aka Jeff Markum, played by Robert Mitchum) has been promised a fortune by Kathie’s ex-boyfriend, the kingpin Whit (Kirk Douglas plays it with a deadly grin), to locate her. After following Kathie’s trail to Acapulco, Bailey waits several days in a drowsy café for her to appear. Out of the Past is surely one of the most lyrical of noirs, owing as much to the delicate finery of Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography as to director Jacques Tourneur’s soulful apprehension of fate. Even so, Greer’s arrival is sublime: She comes out of the blanched sunshine under an archway, moving purposefully from far to near. Our vision is aligned with Jeff’s in this moment, but we might also reflect upon the way his position resembles that of the moviegoer, passively watching a woman in the cool dark. A cinema across the street from the café, specifically mentioned by Bailey in his voiceover, clinches the connection.

Mexico is only one point in Out of the Past’s dynamic triangulation of locations. It’s also the most melancholy, if for no other reason than its being most deeply embedded in the past. Jeff recounts his doomed love for Kathie to his present girlfriend Ann, framing the story with a poignant degree of regret. Tourneur’s style further complicates matters, stressing the intensity of Jeff and Kathie’s romance while at the same time maintaining a worried detachment (fishnets covering the beach where they first embrace; a delicious pan-dissolve through a cantina in which time and space seem to melt with Jeff’s growing obsession). There’s a great moment after the troubled lovers run into Kathie’s little bungalow in from the topical rains when Kathie takes the needle of a record, abruptly interrupting what we had assumed to that point was the film’s orchestral score. Like Jeff, we see the dangerous unreliability of this romance but still find its melodies irresistible.

Robert Mitchum, that master of noir resignation, stars in no less than three of the films in the PFA series. One suspects this might have something to do with his pot bust in 1948 (Orson Welles savagely satirizes Hollywood’s picture of drug-crazed Mexican youth in Touch of Evil). John Farrow’s endearingly odd His Kind of Woman (1951) makes sport of this notoriety, saddling Mitchum’s patsy with bits of hipster speak. His character, Dan Milner, is a small time crook lured down to Mexico on the promise of easy money. A deported kingpin (an especially smarmy Raymond Burr) plans on usurping his identity to reenter the US. Starting with a scene in which a trio of hoods waits for Dan in his house and then works him over with soft punches offscreen, His Kind of Woman is strangely prescient of The Big Lebowski (1998). The subsequent appearance of Vincent Price as a preening movie director ensures the farcical mood. We only grasp the true purpose of the Mexican setting in the final reel once Mitchum takes his shirt off for good.

The actor’s character in Where Danger Lives (1950), also directed by Farrow, spends much of the picture nursing a concussion. Comely psych-ward patient Margo (Faith Domergue) takes advantage of this condition to convince him that he accidently killed her husband (Claude Rains) during the same fight that left him so woozy. Dogged by paranoid visions of an imminent police dragnet, they beat a path from San Francisco for the border (as in Out of the Past and The Great Flamarion, Frisco and Mexico are twinned frontiers). Where Danger Lives doesn’t benefit from its superficial resemblance to the far superior Angel Face (1952), though Farrow again manages to infuse the script’s dully plotted fatalism with some genuinely nightmarish qualities: an unmoored over-the-shoulder shot of Mitchum stumbling from a blow, for instance, or the jumpy views of the small towns the couple pass by on their escape route. The crummy streets of a seamy border town provide Farrow an expanded visual palette, and he makes the most of it in a genuinely unsettling motel room betrayal that looks ahead to the killing of Joe Grandi in Touch of Evil, flashing neon and all.

The bulk of Ida Lupino’s small wonder, The Hitch-Hiker (1953), also takes place in a car, though this time we’re in Mexican territory (Owens Valley standing in for the Baja desert), and the action is considerably more tense. Two friends on a fishing trip are taken hostage by an escaped convict, and Lupino strips the dynamics of power and impotency of this situation to the bone. At the other side of the spectrum is Anthony Mann’s The Great Flamarion (1945), a baroque B-picture made all the more so by Eric von Stroheim’s performance as a maudlin man in the mold of Emil Jannings’ professor in The Blue Angel (1930). You need to dig a little to find the film’s pleasures—a slightly dreamy Dan Duryea brilliantly contrasting Stroheim’s formal bearing; Mann’s fractured cutting and cluttered compositions when Stroheim’s Flamarion, a vaudeville marksman, gets to shooting—but when you do you a picture resembling a psychologically charged daydream.

Aliases and slippery identities are an extension of the fantasy of Mexico as a lawless country, but Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential (1952) ups the ante of anonymity. Tim Foster (Preston Foster), the boss of a heist outfit, conceals his identity from his freelance helpers and requires them to wear masks during the actual caper. The bulk of the film takes place in Mexico, where the hoods sweat out the days waiting on their payoff; the brilliant speed of the heist makes these subsequent scenes go like molasses. The constant is Karlson’s comic-book dynamism, a style of framing and cutting that seizes originality from efficiency. The wordless prologue that establishes Tim’s blueprints for the perfect crime, for instance, is an utterly conventional scene delivered with such a crisp economy of shots as to capture our attention. Or consider the terse poetry of our initial vision of hired gun Pete Harris (the immortal Jack Elam): a close-up of a trembling hand stubbing out one half-finished cigarette in a crowded ashtray and then picking out another. We’re acquainted with his nervous energy first, his face second. The story turns on fall guy John Payne (Joe Rolfe) trying to reclaim his rightful share of the loot. En route, he’s treated to a full repertoire of hand-to-hand combat. This is a world where men slug each other in the stomach before shaking hands and sadistic cops look to beat confessions out of innocent men.

More profoundly alert to police brutality is Touch of Evil. Welles’s mid-career masterpiece has been viewed as a historical capstone since at least Paul Schrader’s 1972 essay, “Notes on Film Noir,” but it takes on sharper definition coming at the close of “Going South.” The movie surfaces the latent racial dynamics of the border noir, transforming a game of cops and robbers into a moral labyrinth and raising the specter of ugly incidents like the Zoot Suit Riots in the disreputable space of pulp fiction. Instead of imaging Mexico as a figurative elsewhere, Welles situates the film on a fluid border (Venice, California standing in for fictional Los Robles), drawing a dialectical relationship between the two sides which runs through every aspect of the film.

The dynamic geography is established by the opening tracking shot, one of the single most famous camera movements in film history (spoiled in the original release version by overlaid opening credits; the PFA screens the 1998 Walter Murch cut, which corrected this problem) We follow the twinned progress of a car packed with dynamite and a handsome young couple (Charlton Heston as the Mexican investigator Vargas; Janet Leigh as his Philadelphia-bred wife, Susan) as they cross towards the American side. The relative distances of camera, car and characters are in constant flux, something further accented by the spread of the sound design. The wonderful paradox is that this most beautifully choreographed shot conveys a most chaotic view of the world. If the typical Hollywood camera movement is motivated by movie stars, here the movement seems to represent a darker force on the verge of swallowing the very conventional vision of Heston and Leigh. After densely packing in story information in the form of interwoven dialogue—something Welles mastered early in his radio days—the lovers move to embrace. The car explodes the moment they kiss, and the lucid dream of the first shot cracks with a sudden zoom to the explosion, followed by a wildly bucking handheld shot that vividly contrasts with the smooth operation of the opening.

The link between sexual release and violence is one of the central facets of Touch of Evil’s insidious structure. In contrast to the other films in the “Going South” series, Heston and Leigh’s characters seem a little vague next to the film’s more grotesque manifestations, both American and Mexican. Welles himself plays the most complex of these, the corrupt but not easily disavowed cop Quinlan, who like Charles Foster Kane before him, represents a metastasizing of American power. The characters in Touch of Evil have essentially stable, if still ambiguous identities; what’s at stake is nothing less than reality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this potentially bottomless view of society didn’t please the studio. Welles worked primarily in Europe for the rest of his career, and one might note that a similar fate awaited the director of another film to entertain American racism. Joseph Losey’s The Lawless (1950) is set well north of the border, where the noirish nightmare belongs to Mexican Americans and a conscientious white journalist. Immigration and border politics have only become more central to America’s story of itself since, but you wouldn’t know it by the way Hollywood tells it.