Director: Tony Richardson
Script: Deric Washburn, Walon Green & David Freeman
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Valerie Perrine, Warren Oates, Elpidia Carrille, Shannon Wilcox, Manuel Viescas
Running time: 108 minutes
Year: 1981
Certificate: 18

Directed by Tony Richardson, (who had his heyday in the sixties with films like A Taste of Honey (1961) The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), and Tom Jones (1963)), The Border is sadly a ‘diamond in the rough’, one that’s been lost in the rough for far too long, and is now long due some critical reappraisal.

Released in early 1982, to little fanfare and even lower financial gain, The Border tells the story of US border patrolman, Charlie Smith, who’s a bit slapdash at his job, his marriage, and pretty much anything else come to think of it. Just when he’s thinking of going back to his old job at Recreation and Parks, he gets the option of a transfer to Texas, which seems like a good move. When he starts in his new job he’s quickly brought under the wing of corrupt patrolman, Cat (Harvey Keitel), who’s got some lucrative side-lines going on and wants his new partner to be in on it with him. However, Charlie just wants to turn over a new leaf, do a good job and provide for his increasingly extravagant wife; but between her demands for a more affluent lifestyle and the persuasive patter of the charismatic Cat, Charlie ends up getting caught up in helping smuggle illegal immigrants across the Texas border. When one of them, a young Mexican girl named Maria (Elpidia Carrille), loses her baby to abductors who plan to sell the child, Charlie decides to take a stand for her and against the corruption he's fallen into.

Although The Border was made in the early eighties everything about it screams early seventies and it feels like it could have been made by the late, great Sam Peckinpah; it has that sort of vibe to it, with dusty landscapes, hard, brutal men getting away with hard, brutal crimes, and a reluctant hero-type who somehow loses his own sense of morality along the way, but regains it just in time for the final act, where he realises that doing the right thing can be its own reward.

The Border looks and sounds great, and authentically conveys that sense of hope and hopelessness within any wannabe immigrant population – in this case the Mexicans trying to pass into the States. And, most importantly, the script is well written and researched and brings all the principal characters along in the right way, and at the right time, which is something many scripts fail to do. And talking of characters, Charlie Smith is so well written and so well-rounded that Jack Nicholson should have been Oscar-nominated for his performance here, which is probably one of his best, in a long career of excellent roles. In fact, Nicholson, himself, has been noted to say that ‘this was the best film I ever made’. I have to say that, from my perspective at least, it was nice to see Nicholson play a good guy for a change; well, a kind of good guy!

Nicholson, in turn, is aided and abetted by a great supporting cast including Valerie Perrine, playing his funny wife, Marcy, and Harvey Keitel essaying another great bad-guy role. And they are all given extra gravitas by an excellent blues and country and Western score by respected musician Ry Cooder. In fact, another musician, Bruce Springsteen, allegedly liked the film so much he was inspired to write the song ‘The Line’.

The movie was filmed in Antigua and also in Guatemala City, a fact which really adds to the gritty feel of the film, and substantially increases the overall production value.  Oh, and apparently water beds (which feature in the film) cost about $1,500 back then, in case you’re interested…

Powerhouse Films is distributing The Border on their Indicator DVD and Blu-ray label. There are some extras on the disc including:

A commentary with Nick Pinkerton

A Guardian tribute to director Tony Richardson from 1992. This was recorded at the BFI in tribute to the director, following a preview screening of his last film Blue Sky (1994), and features the then Sight and Sound editor, Philip Dodd, hosting friends and work colleagues of the late Tony Richardson, including Vanessa Redgrave, Kevin Brownlow, Lindsay Anderson, Jocelyn Herbert and Karel Reisz. Tony’s daughter, Natasha Richardson, introduces the film and also takes part in the discussion. Although the set-up is a bit rough and ready, there’s much to be learned about the director, although sadly not about The Border, which doesn’t even get a mention! Apparently, Richardson would encourage improvisation and was very anti-establishment, and really didn’t like working in America during the latter part of his career.

Theatrical trailer (1.47 mins) – quite a minimalist trailer 

Image gallery – featuring over 35 stills and images from the film

The Border
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About The Author

Justin Richards is a journalist by day and a scriptwriter by night. His work has appeared in the darker recesses of the internet and in various niche publications including ITNOW, The Darkside, Is it Uncut?, Impact and Deranged. When he’s not sitting hunched over a sticky, crumb-laden keyboard he’s paying good money to have people in pyjamas try and kick him repeatedly in the face.

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