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The direction by Tony Richardson, who had his heyday in the sixties with films as varied as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Tom Jones (1963), and The Loved One (1965), all adapted from novels, is at times inspired and artistic, and at other times as ordinary as dishwater. I don't think he was able to make up his mind while directing this film about whether he wanted win an award at Cannes or Venice or to just sell some tickets. As it turns out he did neither as well as he might have. Nonetheless as a snapshot of poor Mexican immigrants (and would-be immigrants) as they clash with the border patrol culture twenty-some years ago The Border is definitely worth a look. Particularly vivid is the depiction of the absurdities and hypocrisies among the coyotes, the "wets," the border patrol rank-and-file, the law and the realities of life along both sides of the thin strip separating the promised land from the third world.
Nicholson plays Charlie Smith, a border patrol cop with a trailer trash wife (Valerie Perrine) who yearns to move up to the luxury of duplex living. In particular she wants to move in next door to her high school girlfriend Savannah (Shannon Wilcox) who is married to the "Cat" (Harvey Keitel). Charlie Smith is a bit of an innocent who was satisfied with his trailer home and his sexy, loving, but not overly sharp, wife Mary. When they do pick up and move to Texas he runs headlong into the corrupt lifestyle of the Cat and the cruel realities of his job which consists of arresting illegal immigrants and sending them back to Mexico. Meanwhile Mary isn't just sitting home twiddling her thumbs. Instead she is out buying water beds and dinette sets, overstuffed chairs and sofas, and other knickknacks that put a strain on the couple's budget which leads Charlie into temptation. But when taking kickbacks turns to murder, Charlie draws the line in the sand (literally as it happens) and he and the Cat have a rather rude falling out. Meanwhile Charles spots Carrillo as the lovely Maria with babe in arms and a little brother at her side. Predictably the system cruelly exploits her, bringing Charlie to her rescue.
I think the striking contrast between Charlie's air-headed Mary and the desperate and needy Maria needed to be further explored. As it was played Charlie is just a good joe doing a good deed or two when in fact we know he is much more involved than that. I think the movie would have been improved by making him choose between the two women as he had to make the moral choice between going with the Cat's corruption or going against him.
See this for Jack Nicholson, one of the great actors of our time, who brings subtlety and veracity to a role that could have been ordinary, while giving us only a hint of the commanding and irreverent style that he would adopt in later years.
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