There's an image in Border Incident that's a near perfect representation of the senses endemic to noir; it's a moment that illustrates a world overwhelmed by helplessness, in which any victory is soured by the messy, casualty-laden path it must take. That image, in which agent Pablo Rodriguez watches powerlessly as his fellow U.S. agent Jack Bearnes is executed beneath a tractor, is the moment in which any illusions of succeeding unscathed are lost; any hope of a glorious abolition of illegal smuggling and abuse of migrant workers is destroyed along with Bearnes.
Yet, as crucial as this moment is, it isn't the turning point; it's another nail in the coffin—the first of many scenes showing a world tearing at the seams. The real moment when things start falling apart is much quieter; it occurs when one of McGraw's thugs gives the cops tailing him the slip. The impotence of the law is immediately apparent as the thug zips his motorcycle across train tracks and plowed fields, leaving the police unable to follow and save the day.
Indeed, it seems that by the end, the police have had precious little to do with apprehending the criminals. The reinforcements, with their black-and-whites and professional uniforms are latecomers to the climactic battle; they are mere witnesses to the struggle and narrow victory of the brazeros. The final fight seems void of the glory and satisfaction of beating criminals, and instead feels awkward and slight.
The movie begins with a certain optimism, in which Pablo and Jack have a more glorious conclusion in mind. At their briefing, they joke and reminisce about the good ol' days, and seem sure of their abilities to carry out the job cleanly and effectively. They stand for the system; for law and order; and for the belief in basic decency. For much of the picture, this stalwart optimism remains intact. When Pablo visits Jack imprisoned in the water tower, it still feels like they're going to pull off an amazing liberation for the brazeros and bring the smuggling crooks to justice. Yet we can go farther than that. Even as Jack is about to be executed, there's the sense that Pablo must be getting ready for a spectacular rescue. As McGraw inches the tractor bit by bit to the struggling Bearnes, I kept thinking: "alright Pablo, hurry up and get on with it; your pal won't wait forever." The horror is in realizing that Pablo is unable to do anything to save his friend and that all he can do is watch.
Noir is characterized by many things, and assigning a single attribute or word to define it would be a gross oversimplification. Nevertheless, the last 30 minutes or so of Border Incident seem relentless in proving a point so fundamental to noir: we're heavily informed by helplessness and desperation. Even a scene that would normally seem a reprieve is instead used to exacerbate the sense that corruption exists all around us. The end—and victory—at last seems at hand as Pablo makes a call to the government, bringing in the cavalry. Yet whatever grand victory at hand seems dashed when it turns out Pablo has just walked into McGraw's gun-toting wife. Even our perception that she's some understanding homesteader is off.
So many of our expectations are broken by this movie that, by the end, the narrator's documentarian wrap of the situation seems incongruous; it's like it doesn't even belong here. Nor do the awards given to Pablo and posthumously to Jack. They're obligatory—a final, if subtle, jab at the administration's petty and ineffective role in the mission. Indeed, the more fitting summary to the movie's sensibilities lies in the final battle. Pablo and the brazeros, up against the rocks, manage to salvage whatever they can from a plan that has gone completely wrong.
Noir is a progenitor of our post-War sensibilities; it provides an outlet for expressing our fear that corruption wins, and that any victory against it must be a pyrrhic one. The odds seem more and more stacked against the good guys as Border Incident hurtles to the finish like a runaway train.