The Bette Davis Project: Bordertown (1935)

Bordertown (1935)

Synopsis:

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:

Bordertown, written by Laird Doyle and Wallace Smith, directed by Archie Mayo, was filmed before, but released after Davis’s breakthrough role in RKO’s Of Human Bondage (1934). Warner Bros. had gotten wind that Davis was given a sensational performance in the RKO movie and the studio decided to take advantage of what promised to be a bonanza of free publicity. They didn’t need to be so careful — Bordertown is a rock-solid quasi-noirish tale of betrayal and murder, with an enjoyable sparring match between Muni and Davis.

The film is neatly divided into two sections. The first half showcases the idealist lawyer’s struggles with an unjust legal system. The second half concentrates on the lawyer’s growing ruthlessness. This section of the movie is (figuratively and literally) darker. The story concludes with a 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 harmful stereotypes to condemn prejudice (?).

But never mind that, Davis’s performance received the most attention, and still makes the film entertaining to watch today. If Of Human Bondage made people take notice of Davis’s “bizarre” 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.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The film was partially reworked as They Drive By Night (1940), with Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, and George Raft. With Margaret Lindsay (Jezebel), Hobart Cavanaugh, Soledad Jiminez, and Gavin Gordon. B&W, 90 minutes, Not Rated.

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