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The Narrow Margin

The Narrow Margin
1952 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 71 min. / Street Date July 5, 2005 / 19.97
Starring Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White, Don Beddoe, Paul Maxey, Peter Brocco
Cinematography George E. Diskant
Art Direction Albert S. D'Agostino, Jack Okey
Film Editor Robert Swink
Original Music Union Pacific
Written by Earl Felton, Martin Goldsmith, Jack Leonard
Produced by Stanley Rubin
Directed by Richard Fleischer

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This superb thriller was the sleeper's sleeper hit of 1952. It launched Richard Fleischer as an A-list director and even paid off for its screenwriter Earl Felton, working from a story partly written by the scribe behind Edgar Ulmer's Detour. Charles McGraw's gravel-voiced hardboiled cop verbally spars with acid-tongued Marie Windsor, the queen of sultry B-movie dames (Force of Evil, The Killing). The tension never lets up for a moment, and the claustrophobic setting of a moving train becomes a character unto itself.

If a DVD fan doesn't want all of the discs in the new Warner Film Noir 2 package, this is the one to go for.


LA detective Sgt. Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) has a nail-biting assignment: bring the wife of a slain mobster back from Chicago to testify before a grand jury. She's Mrs. Frankie Neil (Marie Windsor), a cheap-talking cookie for whom Brown forms an instant dislike. Their lack of harmony doesn't make it any easier when two killers show up on the same train, snooping to find Mrs. Neil's hiding place or to bribe Brown to give her up. A mysterious overweight man (Paul Maxey) exhibits a suspicious interest in Brown as well, making it difficult to hide anything in the narrow corridors. The detective makes a big mistake when he strikes up a dining-car friendship with the beautiful Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White) - the bad guys get the idea that she's their target for the day.

The Narrow Margin is one of the cleverest cat-and-mouse games made in the noir style. It sets up its tense situation with admirable ease and can rightfully be said to keep audiences on the edge of their seats - there are not ten seconds of slack time in the whole show. One policeman must quietly fend off an unknown number of probing hit men on an LA-bound train, while not attracting attention to himself or the woman he's protecting. He's dealing with intangibles on all sides - who are the bad guys? Can he be sure that the thug with the pencil moustache is one of them? How about the 'fat man' in the corridor? In the close confines of the train, Sgt. Brown has to pretend that he's alone when the attractive Ann Sinclair notices him behaving strangely, and her precocious son Tommy (a hilariously raucous Gordon Gebert) immediately figures out that he's not on the level: "Hey, he's hiding a gun! I bet he's a robber!"

The underpaid and overburdened Brown can't hide his nerves and weakens at least momentarily when propositioned to take a bribe by the oily Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco, later Dr. Wu in Our Man Flint). It is clear that the odds are all on the side of the mob and that the use of witness intimidation and murder to obstruct justice is routine activity. In a world this pitiless, Brown's gratingly hardboiled attitude is a rational response. He has to stay on task. There's a narrow margin between success and failure, and a equally narrow margin between being an honest cop and becoming the bought pigeon of the mob.

This brings us to the marvelous Charles McGraw/Marie Windsor duo, a pairing that makes for some of the best tough-talk patter in the movies. Every line that comes out of this couple is a smart remark or cynical jibe. Windsor's Mrs. Neil is impossibly selfish and cold, and McGraw's Brown sounds as if he's ready to start hitting her at any moment. He's risking his life to protect a woman he clearly despises, a contradiction that shifts The Narrow Margin onto the unstable moral ground of the best of film noir. Nothing seems to be simply black or white anymore. Are all our energies being expended in the wrong directions?

The Narrow Margin has some major twists worthy of the best detective fiction, that I won't risk by discussing the plot any further. But this movie packs surprises that are still difficult to see coming, 50 years later.

The production was the talk of the Hollywood technical community, just as Gun Crazy had been two years earlier. Following the same ideas used in Das boot thirty years later, the claustrophobic feeling of a train interior's passageways and cramped compartments is maintained even with a big 35mm camera in use. The use of rear projection for the window views is also excellent, sustaining a clear illusion of motion and landscape, especially when a car begins to follow. Only one time do the RKO process crew have to cheat the rear projection - when we see a vehicle driving backwards on a roadway.

There is no soundtrack score, and only railroad noises are heard behind the titles. Natural railway sounds provide a constant audio bed, and adds punctuation when director Fleischer takes a moment to highlight Paul Maxey as a potential bad guy. The film abounds in fun little tension-building touches, like the cut from Marie Windsor anxiously filing her nails to the identical rhythm of the locomotive's tie rods chugging away. The lighting is excellent -plus; in the daytime stop somewhere in Colorado, the sunshine on the station platform is blindingly bright. Elsewhere, clever tricks with reflections in windows and shiny surfaces add dimension to scenes. A reflection in the windows of a train on the next track figure strongly in the audience-pleasing dramatic climax.  2

As I've written once before, Ian Fleming must have been a film noir fan when he wrote the James Bond movies, for he lifts an entire plot structure from White Heat for his Goldfinger. That book uses a saying involving the words Happenstance, Coincidence and Enemy Action that seems in part inspired by a dialogue line from this film. But Fleming transposed The Narrow Margin into a trip on the Orient Express in his From Russia with Love. Bond's flight from Turkey with Tatania Romanova is practically a carbon copy, complete with Bond trying to communicate at various whistle stops, killers leaving and boarding the train surreptitiously, and a brutal fight in a train compartment. McGraw's battle with a killer isn't quite the slugfest between 007 and Red Grant, but it comes close. It has a great dialogue exchange - Thug: "I think you knocked a tooth loose!" Brown: "Wanna try for none?"

I need to discuss a spoiler, and will do so in a  footnote.

Warners' DVD of The Narrow Margin looks great, far better than the old Image laserdisc from the 90s (that we spun frequently in the Erickson burrow, I don't mind saying). George Diskant's moody photography, half of it in deep-focus and the other half a special process effect of one kind or another, looks great. The soundtrack is first-generation rich.

RKO's 1952 promotion was pretty cheesy, judging by the authentic but crude poster on the package cover and the even duller trailer. It has quite a few alternate takes, including Charles McGraw calling a guy "Jingle Jaw" in his inimitable gravelly voice.

The big extra is a commentary from William Friedkin, who has a lot of enthusiasm for the film but not much to offer besides a running descriptions of scenes and generalizations about film noir. He's done a little more homework than John Milius on Dillinger, although you can almost hear both commentators turning pages they've downloaded from the IMDB. On Fury Peter Bogdanovich sometimes sounds a bit bored, but we know we're hearing authoritative information.

The Narrow Margin is a superlative film noir. Along with The Killing, Savant often springs it on people adverse to old B&W movies, just to show them what they're missing.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Narrow Margin rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer, commentary with director William Friedkin
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 24, 2005


1. Spoiler - don't read until you have seen the film! Anyone who has seen The Narrow Margin will forgive the slight lapses in logic here and there, such as why Brown never attempts to enlist any ouside help in his train ordeal. The movie is just too fast and too rewarding to worry about things like that. What does disappoint us is the way one character (and its real hero) is simply ignored after being killed performing a noble and thankless job. At the fade-out, Sgt. Brown is shown ministering to one woman who has been coming on to him fairly strongly since the beginning of the train trip. He's apparently forgotten all about the other woman, who we miss a lot more. As William Friedkin says in his commentary, with the addition of just one soulful shot of a contrite Brown paying his respects to a fallen comrade The Narrow Margin would become a classic.

2. (Spoiler) This reflection gag (and also the concept of identity concealment for an important person on a train trip) is borrowed from an earlier RKO noir by Jacques Tourneur called Berlin Express.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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