After an unsuccessful stint as a lawyer for the poor, Mexican immigrant Johnny Ramirez (Paul Muni, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) moves from L.A., California, to a small town near the border with Mexico. Once there, Johnny finds a job as a bouncer in businessman Charlie Roark’s (Eugene Pallette, The Adventures of Robin Hood) casino. Johnny eventually becomes partners with Charlie, and everything goes well, that is, until Mrs. Roark (Bette Davis) falls for Johnny.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“The only fun I get is feeding the goldfish, and they only eat once a day.”
Directed by Archie Mayo (The Petrified Forest and Angel on My Shoulder) from a screenplay by Laird Doyle (1937’s The Prince and the Pauper) and Wallace Smith (1929’s Bulldog Drummond), Bordertown is a rock-solid quasi-noirish tale of betrayal and murder, with a fine sparring match between Paul Muni and Bette Davis.
Bordertown is neatly divided into two completely different sections. The first half showcases the decent and idealist lawyer’s struggles with an unjust legal system. The second half concentrates on the attorney’s growing bitterness and ruthlessness. This section of the movie is very dark and extremely depressing.
The story concludes with an incredibly tense courtroom sequence. The transition from social drama to murder mystery is handled well. I did think that the film stumbles here and there as it tries to make a statement about racism in America — it uses, unfortunately, harmful stereotypes to condemn prejudice.
Never mind that, Davis’s excellent performance received the most attention, and still makes the film entertaining to watch today. If Of Human Bondage (1934) made people take notice of Davis’s unique acting style, Bordertown cemented her image in viewers’ minds as the quintessential mercurial lady.
Davis’s exemplary work notwithstanding, Bordertown belongs to Muni and Muni alone. The actor is very good as the poor Mexican immigrant who tries to improve his life by hook or by crook. Time has not treated Muni kindly — mostly because of his insistence on disappearing entirely inside characters — but I like him. He has a curious but effective chemistry with Davis. Co-starring Margaret Lindsay (Jezebel), Hobart Cavanaugh (Jimmy the Gent), Soledad Jiminez and Gavin Gordon.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Bordertown was filmed before, but was released after Davis’s breakthrough role in RKO’s Of Human Bondage. Davis’s studio, Warner Bros., had gotten wind that the actress was given a sensational performance in the RKO movie and the movie studio decided to take advantage of what promised to be a bonanza of free publicity. They didn’t need to be so careful because Bordertown is an intense, well-crafted melodrama. The film was partially reworked as They Drive By Night (1940), with Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, and George Raft. B&W, 90 minutes, Not Rated.