I get a great deal of pleasure screening noir films, from subtle magnificence to the stinkiest of cheese. I choose my favorites of available best and worst (must be public domain or otherwise available on YouTube) to live tweet on Sundays with the #BNoirDetour gang. Some I put on a back burner, knowing sooner or later I may get to them. Others I watch and leave behind with a shrug. And then there are those that leave me neither heated up nor icy cold, but shaking my head in dismay. 1950’s Borderline is in this latter category.
The film’s set-up fits noir, as two undercover cops (MacMurray and Trevor) attempt to defeat a smuggling ring, transporting drugs across the Mexican border. Both use aliases, and neither knows the other is on the same team. MacMurray’s Johnny McEvoy poses as a drug runner while Trevor’s Madeleine Haley is sent to seduce Pete Richey (Raymond Burr), smuggler extraordinaire. There’s danger, drugs, guns, murder, and lots of zingy one-liners. And both lead actors are known for their noir chops, from MacMurray as the unforgettable Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (1944) to Trevor sizzling in Born to Kill (1947) and winning an Oscar for her work in Key Largo (1948)–to name just a few.
Locale is also key to a noir ambiance. I argued this to an extent in my recent piece on Key Largo, but I can’t explain it better than Elena of the blog Weirdland does, so I won’t try. She writes, “One of the strange things about travel South of the Border is that it can have one of two contrasting effects: either reveal the real you, stripped down in elemental conflict with destiny […] or it can be an opportunity for reinvention and masquerade. […] In ‘Borderline’, which is a sort of film noir lite, Mexico is the site of duplicity and pretence. Which is why the film rather goes against the conventions of noir, and becomes more a comedy of errors” (The Psychological Splitting of Film Noir).
I’ve seen the expression “noir lite” before, and frankly such films often go down just as flatly as lite beer. A critic on IMDB called it “Noir Meets It Happened One Night.” I think that’s too generous. I wonder if I might have enjoyed Borderline more had I not seen it tagged as film noir. But I doubt it.
The film opens with reasonable seriousness, but when Trevor’s straight-laced Detective Haley attempts her seduction of Richey (Burr), the film flies off the noir rails. There are plenty of bad musical acts in noir and gangster pics (take Mamie Van Doren in Guns, Girls and Gangsters, please!), but the whole scene in which Trevor performs with a troupe of female singer-dancers in her attempt to catch Richie’s eye jumps straight over the shark and into campy slapstick.
It doesn’t help that there’s no chemistry between the characters (or actors), as Richey isn’t looking for love and Haley’s flirtation skills frankly suck.
Sadly, the dynamic Trevor has no chemistry with MacMurray either. In part as an exercise in excess, I complained elsewhere about the lack of heat generated by MacMurray and Stanwyck as a couple in Double Indemnity. Since Trevor could set the room on fire opposite Laurence Tierney (yes, I blogged about this), I’d love to blame the fizzle on MacMurray. But frankly, I think it’s the writing of both characters…and the entire film, really…that makes this tale of dangerous undercover work so dull.
In the end, I’d call Borderline either a missed opportunity (based on bad mixing of genres) or just a bad script needing to be scrapped. There’s no one in the film who couldn’t do better elsewhere, perhaps with the single exception of the stereotypical Mexicans, whose decision to take the paycheck and suffer the indignity is about all there is to respect in their performances.