Bordertown, 1935. 7/10

Paul Muni and Bette Davis in this crime/noir drama. Muni plays attorney/businessman Johnny Ramirez, who ends up in the fictional Mexican city of Bordertown working in Charlie Roark’s (Eugene Palletta’s) club, and there meeting his lonely wife Marie (Bette Davis). Margaret Lindsey and Gavin Gordon are the snobbish couple Dale Elwell and Brook Manville, Johnny’s nemeses from a case that got him disbarred.

Johnny’s getting his diploma from law school. A lot of ‘lifting up by your own bootstraps’ (right after I wrote this that actual phrase popped out in the script) and ‘bad boy made good’ cheerfest. At a homecoming party, the priest gives a toast, but his toupee is the notable thing here. Johnny’s mom’s character is so broadly-drawn and stereotypical that it’s almost authentic. Naturally, Johnny’s first case involves a guy who can’t pay court fees. “Plenty clients, no fees” Johnny tells the priest, who then offers: “Patience is one of the virtues of our people.” Anything else we need to know?

Flip to the Cafe Paloma with Dale and Brook, who, suitably soused, take off, her driving. Of course she runs into old-timer Manuel’s model T vegetable truck. Manuel’s truck is totalled and he’s injured, but he isn’t worried. “I’ve got the best lawyer in the world; even in Mexico City!” that is Johnny. In court though, it’s obvious that the judge is incredibly biased–even though it was Dale’s fault, she was drunk, and had no insurance. Johnny blows up, and then he’s found in contempt. The humiliation is complete, as the opposing council pays his fee. What’s worse, Dale, realizing that she’s in fact responsible, offers to pay for Manuel’s truck; that’s nice, but her overly-priggish lawyer insists that Johnny is up to something.

The result is that Johnny not only loses the case but ‘lost it’ by punching out the priggish guy. Now, he’s “mentally unfit” to be a lawyer, according to the judge. Later, the priest, another genius with his advice, says pretty much the opposite, that Johnny’s onlt fit to be a laborer. In any case, Johnny’s determined to make his way, and splits from ‘momisita’ and the barrio. He catches a ride to the border. Soon enough, he’s installed in a casino. His boss is being hounded by syndicate guys to sell out. Johnny’s all over them, and literally shows them the door “On your way out I’ll stop by the bar, an’ I’ll buy you a drink.”

To the mob guys, Charlie relates the story of how Johnny came on the scene; the cool result is that the gangsters, equally impressed by Johnny end up having a good time of it. Soon Marie shows up, giving Johnny the eye. Her deal is that she’s bored “the only fun I get is feeding the goldfish.” Johnny wants a piece of the action–that is, a good percentage of the club–we get the point that money means everything to him. Incredibly, Charlie has an automatic garage-door opener (remember, it’s 1935). Since Marie is on his side on the business deal, it’s a sure thing.

Meanwhile, Charlie seems like a planned train wreck: he’s just too jovial, also, he just gives Marie a headache. As for Johnny, she says, aptly, “I think you have an adding machine where your heart’s supposed to be.” Anyway, after a particularly disgusting drinking spree, she drives Charlie home, and, knowing the garage door will shut automatically, leaves the engine running with him asleep in the back seat, and walks away. So,he’s done for.

The next scene is in the police station; Marie explains to the sympathetic policemen that Charlie’s death was accidental. All is rosy, as Johnny and Marie have now got the whole business to themselves; plus she trusts him implicitly. Soon, however, Johnny is manhandling a work crew that’s building his new swanky club with Charlie’s dough. Johnny’s impatient and arbitrary. Marie isn’t exactly happy either, as, just like with Charlie, she’s marginalized.

She goes to the worksite to see Johnny. She then lets on that her house creeps her out, because of Charlie “pretty soon he’ll be writing you letters on a ouija board” is his snappy response. Anyway, the new club opens. When greeting the guests, who pops in but Dale and Brook. Weirdly, Dale flirts with him (ok, that’s not so odd, as she was kind to him the last time around). Johnny’s dancing with her now. Actually, she’s a nicer person than Marie, more romantic as well. She even asks if he likes her fragrance.

“What do you mean keeping me two hours?!” Marie blasts him on the phone. Meanwhile, he’s escorting Dale around the club’s patio. Dale says he doesn’t know how to ‘play’. He admits “I think I could learn.” At that moment, Marie shows up. “Are you trying to make a sap out of me?” He is, but so is she doing so with him. The thing is, they’re not married. She confesses that she murdered Charlie. Ok, then, Next time he’s in L.A. he looks up Dale. There’s a really funny patronizing contest between Johnny and Dale’s butler.

Johnny makes it clear to Marie that not only is he happier with Dale, he’s soon to be engaged to her. Now she tries to sell to the police that Johnny forced her to kill her husband. (Isn’t this a typical Bette Davis character?) So, he’s in jail, and his mom and the priest come and visit. On the witness stand, just when you think she’s going to nail him, Marie seems to be in a trance; it’s really hard to tell which way she’s going. Has she gone nuts (or at least faked doing so). The result is that the case is dismissed.

Back at Dale’s, it’s a picture-perfect scene of her coming down the stairs (except for the weirdest dress imaginable; I’m no fashion expert, but she looks like she’s plunked in a fluted vase). She tries to put him off, but agrees to let him drive her to her dinner party. Now of course he proposes to her. It’s “out of the question” because of “equality” (inequality, actually). From where they’re parked, she runs off, just to be clipped by a wayward touring car. She’s dead.

Johnny has lost his dream. He sells the club for a ton of dough–to fund a law school, of course. Nice move, but I’d rather see him go nuts or race around. What’s worse, he buys the priest’s line, saying he’s going back where he belongs, that is, “with his own people.”

This is an interesting drama, mostly because of Bette Davis, and also for the Bordertown premise. Although the racial element is present throughout, it’s dealt with in a complex way: on the one hand, there’s plenty of gratuitous insults (a little of it meant as flirting or teasing, most of it meant seriously). The judge and Brook are out-and-out dismissive, condescending, and patronizing as well. The essentially segregated Hispanic part of LA is shown as it was, which is both an indictment of the era, and a celebration of that ‘other’ culture. Despite all of her faults, Marie sees Johnny only as a fellow-working class type, not as just a ‘Mexican’.

Strangely, it’s Dale, who is a much better match for him, who deliberately snubs him because of his race. What is made clear, however, is that somehow Johnny is ‘better off’ in the barrio. So, what’s wrong with running a cool club in Mexico? Actually, he’s wealthy by the end, and presumably, the law school that he finances will bring other underprivileged folks up from poverty into the mainstream. But that’s second-hand, future generation stuff. Not now, not yet.

My main gripe isn’t with the theme–which has a great deal of nuance, intensity, and authenticity–but with the very predictable plot. We know we’re going to hear a bunch of righteousness from the law school professor, we know something awful is going to happen to Manuel, we know Johnny’s going to go ape at court, we know he’s going to handle business deftly at Charlie’s club, that Marie will come on to him, that he’ll be successful, be betrayed, etc., down to near the end. This isn’t just foreshadowing, it’s eclipse after eclipse.

There’s surprises though; particularly Marie’s bizarre behavior in court. That seems to change everything for Johnny, but, it doesn’t mean he gets Dale. So, the least predictable part of the plot does lead to a twist, in that Dale won’t have him. In a larger sense, then, he comes back to his beginnings, in the barrio. That’s not predictable, but it’s as though it’s determined.

Another thing: although the two women are interesting characters–very different–but both definitely attractive for Johnny’s character, everyone else here is just so-so. Actually, Muni is surprisingly convincing as an Hispanic. The problem isn’t his acting per se, but his character becomes less and less sympathetic as time goes on. He starts out as an idealistic pillar of his community, but quickly develops into a scheming jerk. Sort of like the situation in Double Indemnity, Marie’s husband is no match for the younger, more suave Johnny. But Charlie is fundamentally a good guy, everyone (including Johnny) gets on well with him. But Johnny’s only into the bottom line.

My bottom line is that Bordertown is definitely worth a look; if only for the ambiguous way that racial issues were raised and expressed in the ’30s. The few humorous touches are unexpected and keep this from being too formulaic. With a tighter script, the movie could’ve been quite a bit better. Farmermouse always digs a swanky club/casino, not to mention Johnny’s car, so he gives Bordertown seven Packard roadsters. 7/10.

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