In the 1970s, Mexico made a bet with itself that didn’t pay off. Borrowing heavily against future oil revenues, the country’s economy tanked when the price of oil dropped. As a result, the 1970s and early 1980s might be considered the beginning of the boom in illegal immigration to the United States, as workers looked for a better life north of the Rio Grande.
“The Border,” starring Jack Nicholson as United States immigration enforcement agent Charlie Smith, who gets caught up in running a human and drug smuggling ring then later has a change of heart, was one of the only films to acknowledge the issue, and then only in service of a fairly standard plot. It was released in 1982, and the only reference made to the financial roots of the immigration issue is when a shipping manager in southern California lets Charlie make a token arrest early in the film, both of them knowing the two men being sent to Mexico will be back. The businessman even promises them their old jobs as soon as they make it into the United States again.
A disillusioned Charlie leaves the routine life of Califonia behind for El Paso; his wife Marcy (Valerie Perrine) has convinced him to move there to be closer to her friends. Charlie takes up a job with the Border Patrol, which is a lot more physical and volatile than his previous gig in a suit and tie. He is introduced to the smuggling operation by a fellow agent named Cat (Harvey Keitel).
One of the immigrants that gets caught in their web is Maria (Elpidio Carrillo), a young mother. During a chaotic moment, her baby is stolen for an illegal adoption, and once Charlie finds out how dirty Cat and his cronies are, he turns himself around and vows to find Maria’s baby and presumably fight the system. Or, at least to see that Cat is brought to justice. In “The Border,” the baby-napping plotline is presented so unbelivably it’s hard to believe it could happen in real life. But it did, and still does.
If there’s a reason to recommend “The Border,” it’s for the acting by Jack Nicholson, who mostly tones down his outrageous persona. Here, he’s not the guy yelling at his superiors, or thumbing his nose at the establishment. Instead, he observes, and you get the sense that Charlie is in over his head and realizes it. That extends from his job to his marriage, as Marcy spends beyond the couple’s means. With few exceptions, the scenes with Valerie Perrine feel flown in from another movie. She’s played as comedic relief until one day Charlie can’t stand it and slaps her. Their whole relationship is uncomfortable, and only serves as a counterpoint to Charlie finding real meaning as a white savior figure to Maria, her baby, and her younger brother.
Everything leads to a climactic showdown with a gruesome comeuppance for the bad guys and a pat resolution for Charlie and Maria that has both of them smiling. If only real life were as simple.
“The Border” is new on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, and includes an audio commentary track from critic Simon Abrams. The movie’s theme song, “Across the Borderline,” sung by Freddy Fender, is a classic worth seeking out for your music collection, and has also been memorably recorded by Willie Nelson and Los Texmaniacs.