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Narrow Margin (1990)
When Carol Hunnicut (Anne Archer) meets up with her blind date, lawyer Michael Tarlow (J.T. Walsh), they're both understandably nervous, but it turns out they both have something to be far more concerned about than their chemistry. Ten minutes into their meeting, they both drop by Michael's apartment so he can attend to a client emergency, only for Michael's mobster boss, Leo Watts (Harris Yulin) to show up unexpectedly. While Carol secretly watches from the shadows, Leo murders Michael for stealing money from him. A few days later, deputy district attorney Robert Caulfield (Gene Hackman) tracks down Carol in the Canadian mountains, attempting to convince her to come back to Los Angeles to testify. Carol's hand is forced when Watts' goons, the charismatic Nelson (James Sikking) and the silent Jack Wooton (Nigel Benning), to murder them both. They manage to escape to the relative safety of a westbound train without Nelson or Wooton getting a good look at Carol, but are stuck on board with both killers on a white-knuckle journey to Vancouver.
Narrow Margin is a pretty straightforward, effective thriller. Two characters board the train with two killers on their tail, and have to try and stay alive until the train reaches its destination. Writer/director/cinematographer Peter Hyams picked the 1952 noir The Narrow Margin as the perfect combination of strong material and relative obscurity as fodder for a remake, and then he builds on that material with an impressive cast, led primarily by the ever-reliable Hackman as Caulfield.
Hackman's reputation is largely built on more fiery characters, like his Oscar-winning turns in The French Connection and Unforgiven, but Narrow Margin provides a great overview of his ability to be interesting in pretty much any situation. There are parts of the film where he displays that traditional take-charge energy, but Hyams does a great job of giving the character a range of tones to play. In one of the best scenes in the movie, Caulfield has a tense face-to-face conversation with Nelson and Wooton, and the dynamic of the scene places Caulfield at a disadvantage, yet Hackman is as magnetic as ever, and even incredibly funny as he tries and string along the charade of having no idea who the two men are looking for. Caulfield wants Carol to testify, but instead of barking at her, he manipulates her with a sob story, trying to quietly guilt her into agreeing. Hyams also handles action in an interesting way, maintaining the context that Caulfield works in an office: when he dives out a window at one point, he practically falls out of it, a nice little touch, and later in the film he devises a clever deception, then almost ruins it by being unable to resist taunting his opponent with it. Archer's character is less dynamic, but there are still some nice flourishes in the script and her performance, including her own monologue firing back at Caulfield, and an amusing scene before they board the train where she thinks on her feet. She and Hackman have a good dramatic chemistry, even if it's mostly Hackman's show.
The other ace up Narrow Margin's otherwise simple sleeve is the skill of Hyams' filmmaking. Serving as his own DP, the movie always looks interesting, with a heavy use of shadow (perhaps a tribute to the premise's noir roots) and a slightly darkened palette. The blend of actual train footage, process photography, and even a couple of very cool (if pretty easy-to-identify) models is executed nicely, and the movie never becomes visually boring despite most of it taking place in the bar car or one of the compartments that Caulfield and Carol are hiding in. Before the characters board the train, there is a fairly straightforward but nonetheless tense and thrilling chase between a helicopter and a car down the mountain, with great "POV" shots of the car barrelling through the woods, and of course, the film builds to an action sequence that involves characters on the outside of the train, which include jaw-dropping stuntwork and plenty of footage where it's clear the real actors are on the top of an actual moving train. The final effect at the film's climax kind of flubs the landing, but the old-fashioned practical work really adds to the pleasures of the film.
There are a few minor complaints to be had. On the disc's commentary track, Hyams talks about a change that was made between the original script he wrote and the final film that was suggested by Steven Bochco. The suggestion itself is solid, but in execution it's pretty easy to guess what's going on, especially when the film attempts some misdirects. In this case, having the characters raise and debate this possibility themselves seems like it'd work better in terms of drawing out this secondary mystery. A similar thread involving Caulfield's coworkers is equally flimsy. The film's ending also feels a little neat, bordering on smug, in the way it tries to tie a bow on everything. That said, these are minor quibbles, just a couple of speed bumps on an otherwise thrilling white-knuckle train ride.
Kino has used the original poster artwork for Narrow Margin on this new Blu-ray -- well, part of it, anyway. The main one-sheet (or at least, the most common poster online) featured a cold blue image of a shadowy figure standing by a train. Much like the Artisan DVD release from years ago, however, there was clearly a desire to get the faces of the cast onto the artwork, so a blown-out, red-tinted image of Hackman and Archer (which appears on a Japanese poster) has been added above the title. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case with no insert, and the back follows Kino Lorber Studio Classics' standard template.
The Video and Audio
Despite no mention of this on the packaging, the logo in front of the feature presentation identifies the disc's 2.35:1 1080p AVC transfer as a new 4K master performed by Studio Canal, and the word for it is "rich. " Hyams served as his own DP, and the film has a somewhat burnished look, with colors skewing toward the darker end of the spectrum, many tinted with an amber hue, and a nice use of heavy shadows. That appearance is gorgeously recreated on this disc, which is not "vibrant " in the traditional sense, but still striking in its use of color, and which gets great dimension through an organic, filmic clarity and those thick shadows. Absolutely fantastic. Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 that matches the picture, offering great immersive and dimensional action that adds to the tension with realistic gunfire, the claustrophobic rattle of the interior of the train, and the open-air rush of the exterior. English subtitles are also included, although there are a couple of typos here and there.
There are two audio commentaries on the disc, and the first, by writer/director/cinematographer Peter Hyams, appears to be from the German DVD release of the film by Kinowelt. The other is brand new, featuring film historian Peter Tounguette. No offense to Tonguette, who is an informed and consistent commentator, diving into the resumes of the people who worked on the films, stylistic consistency through Hyams' films, and the parts of the movie he enjoys, but I preferred the Hyams track. There are a handful of pauses on the track, but every time Hyams says something to say, he has an interesting observation to make on why he made the stylistic or technical choices he made (interesting observations about the direction the train moves through the frame), working with the actors (Hackman and Archer's differing preferences), or an amusing perspective on his own work (such as his tendency to write scenes that trigger his own fear of heights). A sturdy, entertaining track.
The rest of the extras consist of vintage video supplements. A "Making-of Featurette" (5:08) is basically the trailer with some sound effects thrown in, complete with the hilariously overwrought ending to said trailer. "Selected Sound Bites" (9:45) include a bit more of the talking-head interviews from the featurette, including Hyams, Hackman, Archer, Sikking, and producer Jonathan A. Zimbert. Finally, there's also some "B-Rolls" (9:34). All of this footage seems to play at a reduced framerate, making the transitions jumpy and movement stutter slightly. All of these extras also appeared on the same Kinowelt DVD.
Narrow Margin is a pretty effective thriller, even if it telegraphs a twist or two a little too early and comes off a little neat in the end. Even more impressive is the disc itself, which offers reference-quality video and top-notch sound. There was a period where Kino's Studio Classics line was largely a repository for physical releases of catalog titles that the studios themselves would never have bothered with, using whatever masters were readily available (which, to be clear, was still greatly appreciated), but the company's recent spate of 4K restorations have really started to make KLCS's efforts as valuable as companies like Shout! Factory, Arrow, and Criterion. Highly recommended.
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