I mentioned earlier that when you watch enough movies you start seeing parallels between them. I’ve been thinking about that again because two movies I saw yesterday are still doing a pas de deux in my head: Border Incident, which was part of the Anthony Mann retrospective at Film Forum, and Bell Book and Candle, which was on TV last night.
The two are polar opposites in a lot of ways. Border Incident is a ripped-from-the-headlines story told in noir style, about a sting set up by Mexico’s federales and the U.S. Border Patrol to nab a cutthroat gang that’s exploiting and killing undocumented immigrants; Bell Book and Candle is a quirky romantic comedy about a book editor (Jimmy Stewart’s Shep) who falls for a witch (Kim Novak’s Gil). Border Incident takes place mostly outdoors or in barebones interiors along the U.S.-Mexican border, shot almost entirely in beautifully composed, day-for-night black-and-white wide shots. Bell Book and Candle takes place largely at night too, but it’s a bright, city-lit nighttime that unfolds on landmark-stuffed soundstages or in crowded rooms. The conflict in Bell Book and Candle is between the witches, who are essentially bohemians (Jack Lemmon plays a hep cat warlock who plays bongos in a Greenwich Village-style bar) and the straight world, while the conflict in Border Incident is more primal: predators vs. prey, criminals vs. lawmen. And the world of Border Incident is almost entirely male, while women pull the strings in Bell Book and Candle.
But the two have a lot in common too, maybe because they’re both products of recently post-war America (Border Incident was released in 1949; Bell Book and Candle came out in 1958, but it was based on a 1950 play.) Both are straightforward genre pieces set in worlds where grownups are supposed to act grown up, which includes dressing for the part, making tough decisions, and playing for high stakes. When federale Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) and border patrolman Jack Bearnes (George Murphy) team up to infiltrate the gang in Border Incident, they accept the risk without hesitation and pay the price without complaint. And the witches in Bell Book and Candle seem weird mostly because they’re irresponsible and carefree, their immortality granting them a kind of eternal adolescence. When Gil falls for Shep, she’s really rejecting the childlike, no-consequences world of the witches and warlocks, choosing a mortal life where people have to live with the consequences of their actions. Stewart is actually too much of a grownup, his lined face and receding hairline (he was 50 at the time) making him hard to buy as a man about to get married for the first time. Not that you don’t still see men on the downside of middle age romancing women in their 20s and early 30s in the movies these days, but that’s getting less common—and more likely to be acknowledged as kind of creepy.
That belief these movies share in the power and obligation of grownups to do the right thing is tied into something else that unites and dates them: their faith in the system. Bell Book and Candle assumes that Gil’s union with Shep is a happy ending, though one might question the wisdom of trading immortality, independence, and magical powers for the life of a ’50s housewife. And while Border Incident works hard to establish sympathy and respect for the braceros who are so desperate to feed their families that they’ll risk crossing the border illegally, they’re just extras in a story about our two heroic government employees, who endure harsh beatings, electrocution by car battery, even being diced to death by a sharp-toothed farm machine to save illegal aliens. As if. The only laugh this solemn movie got at the Film Forum yesterday was a bitter one, as the triumphant final voiceover that ties up the loose ends declared that Mexican workers in the U.S. are “now safe and secure, living under the protection of two great republics and the bounty of God Almighty.”
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.