By Don Stradley
BORDERLINE – Directed by William Seiter, screenplay by Devery Freeman; Starring Fred MacMurray, Claire Trevor, Raymond Burr.
Borderline struggled to be noticed when it was released in March of 1950. Critics took note of Fred MacMurray in his first edgy role since Double Indemnity six years earlier and gave the movie reasonably positive reviews. Still, the film was demolished at the box office. It seemed the year’s biggest hits were in theaters around the same time, including Sampson and Delilah, The Sands of Iwo Jima and, of course, Francis, the talking mule. Borderline didn’t stand a chance. Neither the movie’s genuine Mexican locations, nor the novelty of MacMurray paired for the first time with Claire Trevor were enough to sell tickets. Borderline ended up on double bills with B westerns, an unfortunate deal for a likeable movie that showcased MacMurray’s hardboiled side. He smacks people around. He offers droll one-liners from behind the wheel of a massive Buick sedan, and is unflappable under pressure. You’d think he played these types of roles all the time.
MacMurray plays Johnny McEvoy, aka Johnny Macklin, a narcotics agent working undercover to bust drug smugglers along the Mexican border. When he first encounters the boss smuggler, portrayed by Raymond Burr in his pre-Perry Mason days, MacMurray promptly shoots him in the arm and kicks him in the head. Burr, an enormous man built along the lines of a small mobile home, flops backward in the best tradition of professional wrestlers. From there, the incognito agent finds himself on the run from a cadre of heroes and villains. He takes Claire Trevor with him, thinking she’s part of Burr’s gang. What he doesn’t realize is that she’s also an undercover cop. They’re both working for the right side of the law, but she thinks he’s a crook, and he thinks she’s a crook. Quicker than you can say It Happened One Night, they fall for each other.
Part of the film’s charm is that we know exactly what’s going to happen. We know MacMurray and Trevor will fall in love, and as they whip through a maze of Mexican back roads, we see them warming up to each other, ever so slowly. We know Burr Is supposed to menace the two lovers, and every scene he’s in jumps to life from the mere sound of his oily voice. Burr’s best moment comes early when Trevor flirts with him. He only scowls. A dozen sad stories appear to flash across Burr’s face as he shows the private angst of a career criminal. Women pay attention to thugs like him, but he knows love will never play into it.
Still, MacMurray’s coolness is the movie’s glue. When a backseat passenger is killed during an impromptu gun battle, Trevor asks MacMurray if he plans to stop driving. “Not unless I run out of gas,” he says. Spotting a man napping on a street corner, MacMurray stops, throws the sleeper into the backseat and leaves the dead man in his place. Trevor praises him for his cleverness, and off they go in a cloud of dust. It’s that sort of movie.
The film was directed by William A. Seiter, a journeyman who specialized in romantic comedies. His business partner on Borderline, Milton H. Bren, had produced two of the well-liked Topper films and happened to be married to Trevor. In order to produce the film independently, MacMurray, Seiter and Bren had formed Borderline Pictures Inc. and were deferring their salaries for a percentage of the profits. Trevor, a recent Oscar winner for her work in Key Largo, allegedly deferred her salary, too. Fledgling movie companies often started out with a basic genre piece, which explains much about Borderline. Even in 1950, the story of mistaken identities seemed old-fashioned. “If the stars’ personalities appeal to you,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, “the film probably will, at least as a time passer.”
With their grab bag of guns and giggles, Bren and Seiter were betting on MacMurray’s popularity to launch the new company. As for MacMurray, he was hoping to not only kick Burr’s head off, but to kick off a new direction in his career.
MacMurray was nearing 40, and through smart investments he’d become one of the wealthiest actors in the business. Yet he was in a rut of playing Irish priests and bumbling family men. Is it just a coincidence that right before Borderline he took a gig endorsing Blatz Beer? It seems he wanted a change. As he struts through the film and intimidates the bad guys, we can just about read his mind. He’s telling Hollywood to take a closer look at him. A tall, strapping man with the perfect voice for spitfire dialog, MacMurray was ready for heavier assignments. In fact, he was so pleased with Borderline that before it had finished shooting in Mexico he’d already agreed to another project with Bren and Seiter. But Borderline Pictures Inc. was short-lived. Perhaps being trounced by a talking mule was enough to dissolve the partnership.
Harder edged roles would come – The Caine Mutiny (1954), The Pushover (1954), There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), The Apartment (1960), to name a few – but MacMurray eventually became entrenched in Disney comedies, plus 380 episodes of My Three Sons. He remains best known for lighthearted fare, which is why his occasional appearances in darker material are so impressive.
Borderline jumps around a bit. It starts as a crime flick, morphs into a romantic comedy, and ends with a betrayal and a hail of bullets. You could say it‘s uneven and implausible, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But the good stuff is exquisite. Seiter and cinematographer Lucien Andriot use the Mexican scenery and the odd aerial shots to create a sense of romance and adventure. During the beach scenes you can almost feel the sea mist in your face. There’s actually more romance in the Mexican landscape or the ballroom of a swanky hotel than in the exchanges between the two undercover characters. Perhaps the real story of Borderline is about MacMurray the actor, dumping his salary for the chance to show he was more than a handsome father figure. It isn’t perfect, but there are moments in Borderline that stand with MacMurray’s best work.