Saturday, May 23, 2009
Bordertown is one one of the few older films I've seen that actually deals with issues with the Mexican-American community, however, the film's progressive views quickly lose their power due to an incredibly racist ending, as we shall soon see.
Bordertown stars Paul Muni as Johnny Ramirez, a Mexican American who recently graduated from law school. However, he quickly loses his license during his first case involving a socialite (Margaret Lindsay) who runs into a local man's car and totals it. Johnny is unprepared and quickly loses his case, and when Dale, the socialite offers to pay for the car, her boyfriend (who is also her lawyer) does not allow her and insults Johnny, causing Johnny to strike him, leading to his disbarment.
Embarrassed and determined to make some real money, he ends up as a bouncer in a night club run by Charlie Roark (Eugene Pallette), the two become friends and Charlie quickly realizes that he can use Johnny's intellect to his gain and uses Johnny as an adviser of sorts.
This all ends when Marie Roark (Bette Davis) enters the picture. One look at Johnny and she wants some red hot Latino Lovin so much so that she kills her husband and makes it look like an accident. Inheriting her husband's money, she and Johnny become partners in building a better, classier night club, at the opening of this night club, Johnny meets Dale and falls in love with her, which upsets Marie greatly.
The plot of the film is a bit iffy in its pacing, as what would usually be several major plot points are gone through very quickly and without much fanfare, such as the investigation in Charlie's death, or Marie's descent into insanity.
On that point, it brings me to the biggest issue with the film, the character of Marie Roark. I have no idea why she suddenly become to possessive of Johhny, the film really doesn't give any reason at all. We know she dislikes her husband, but Johnny didn't really show an interest in her, so I don't understand her killing her husband and then her sudden insanity. I guess you could argue that she is haunted by her crime, or you could even say that she's faking it, but regardless, the film moves her from possessive to out and out batsh*t crazy that it's baffling. It's not really the fault of Bette Davis, because the character is written that way, and it allows for Bette Davis to give a very over-the-top, neurotic (always clutching her hair or biting her fingernails) performance, but the character's motivation are far too murky.
Paul Muni is good as well, he plays a Mexican American without getting into offensive stereotype, but the character is fairly shallow. He's a decent guy out to make some money, other than that, there isn't much personality to his character.
And this brings me to the racism of the film. At first, it gives well-rounded portrayals of Mexican Americans are kind, but simple and poor, and it shows that Johnny meets a lot of prejudice because of his ethnicity, but (SPOILER ALERT) the film ends on such a horrible note where Johnny forsakes the life he has made for himself and returns to "his people", which according to him, is where he belongs after losing Dale due to his ethnicity. I suppose you could make the argument that he feels defeated and it's shown more as a tragedy that his character takes that view, and that the film itself isn't trying to say that about the Mexican community, but I'm not sure if I really buy it (END SPOILER ALERT)
Overall, it's hard to recommend this movie, because of the issues I mentioned. It's not offensively bad, but it's not terribly good either. If you like Bette Davis or Paul Muni or are interested in the portrayal of Mexican Americans, then maybe it's worth a look, but the uneven pacing, odd character development, and racist overtones take this film away from being truly good.