It is unfair to compare Archie Mayo’s tough, atmospheric Bordertown to Raoul Walsh’s magnificent They Drive by Night (1940)—see my full piece about it filed under Hollywood Film Reviews—when in fact the latter recycles only a small portion of the former’s plot. Written by Laird Doyle and Wallace Smith from a motion-picture story by Robert Lord, itself “suggested” by the book Border Town by Carroll Graham, Mayo’s film possesses its own merit, although it becomes increasingly thin and melodramatic as it hums along. It had been made in 1934 but was released the following year by Warner Bros. after Bette Davis made her big splash, on loan-out to RKO, in John Cromwell’s Of Human Bondage (1934), from Maugham.
But it is top-billed Paul Muni’s film; Davis’s juicy role is a supporting one, as would be the case with Ida Lupino’s corresponding one in the Walsh film. (Muni would claim a more substantial role in a better film that year, Black Fury, Michael Curtiz, 1935.)
Muni plays Johnny Ramirez, a former tough from Los Angeles’s Mexican neighborhood who has been trying to control his bad Latin temper—not just Muni’s, but every single character in Bordertown is a stereotype—while laboring during the day, at a garage and, before that, by digging ditches, and going to night school, where he earns a “two-bit” law degree. The opening tracking shot is superb. In reality, it is a meshing of shots—by wipe, superimposition and dissolve—which proceed along a given course, surveying a store-crammed street, much of it in Spanish, and up the darkened stairs to the school, where students are standing and singing “My Country ’Tis of Thee”—an American lyric wedded, here with (we as yet do not know how much) irony, to the British national anthem. (This bravura opening surely inspired that of William Wyler’s 1940 The Letter, from which, from our vantage, it retroactively stains the earlier film with a suggestion of neocolonialism.) Muni’s Johnny is one of the students, and his elderly mother is in proud attendance. The opening shot, by combining poverty and enterprise, we come to realize, introduces to us, expressionistically, Johnny Ramirez.
At the celebration in the small, spare, clean apartment that Johnny and his mother share Johnny voices his ambition to help his community through the practice of law. His idol is Lincoln; his declaration of this prompts his mother to make him promise that he won’t grow a beard. Mayo is at work here, because it is impossible to determine whether his mother is teasing Johnny or indulging in endearing irrelevancy. When Johnny has left for court for his first trial, his mother goes to church to pray that he wins. She is no fool; she knows her son. She knows how catastrophic it will be for him if he should lose. He does lose; the judge dismisses the case after dressing down Johnny in open court for being ill-prepared, and predicts disbarment after Johnny loses his temper and socks the opposing counsel. Now Johnny will leave home, sever ties with the Roman Catholic Church (“Padre” had been his surrogate father) and hitchhike south to a border town where money alone will drive and excite him. Only the road death of the rich woman he loves, whose toying with her “savage” he had mistaken for her reciprocating his love, will bring him back home and back to the fold, whose culmination is his long stay in the church confessional booth. He realizes he belongs with “[his] own people.” By this time he himself has become rich by selling the nightclub he had come to own (through a complicated narrative path that involves a smitten woman’s murder of her husband, the original owner). He will use the money to start a law school to train members of his community. He has moved from idealism to avarice and back to idealism.
Muni is very moving, electric, charismatic—and gloriously just shy, constantly, of being over-the-top. Five years hence, in one of his finest and most powerful roles, he would again play a Mexican Indian, this one a Stoic, who idolizes Lincoln: Benito Juárez (Juarez, William Dieterle, 1939).
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