Tuesday, February 23, 2010

#57: The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer, 1952)

Released: May 4, 1952

Director: Richard Fleischer; Screenplay: Earl Felton based on a story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard; Cinematography: George E. Diskant; Producer: Stanley Rubin; Studio: RKO

Cast: Charles McGraw (Det. Sgt. Walter Brown), Marie Windsor (Mrs. Frankie Neall), Jacqueline White (Ann Sinclair), Gordon Gebert (Tommy Sinclair), Queenie Leonard (Mrs. Troll), David Clarke (Joseph Kemp), Peter Virgo (Densel), Don Beddoe (Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes), Paul Maxey (Sam Jennings), Harry Harvey (Train Conductor)

- "Sister, I've known some pretty hard cases in my time... you make 'em all look like putty."

For a low budget crime thriller, Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin has acquired a formidable reputation. Just do a quick internet search about the movie and take in some of the superlatives that are showered on it – in a number of instances, it is referred as possibly the best B-movie ever made. While I may stop short of that highest of accolades, I do concede that it would have to be a contender in such a mythical competition. What makes The Narrow Margin such a great movie is that it accomplishes what every low budget film must do in order to succeed: take a simple story, incorporate a believable yet surprising twist, and populate the movie with colorful, memorable characters. And what elevates it even further is the something that cannot be said about many noirs – it’s just plain fun.

Taking place primarily on a train, the story follows the travails of Det. Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) who is charged with transporting the widow of a recently-slain racketeer across the country so that she can testify before a grand jury. Along with his partner Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe), they are instructed to pick up the strong-willed Mrs. Neall (Marie Windsor) and see that she is delivered to the prosecutor without incident. Right from the start it is made clear that this will be no simple job. The uncooperative Mrs. Neall dawdles, leading to a shootout with gangsters sent to silence her. Forbes is killed in the crossfire and it is then left to Brown to complete the transport. Once they make it to the train, Brown realizes that he is essentially battling two equally trying opponents – the gangsters trying to ice his witness and the stubborn Mrs. Neall who is completely ungrateful for the protection provided by Brown. Along the way, Brown befriends Anne Sinclair (Jacqueline White), a young mother traveling with her son and nanny. This association drags Anne into the entire mess, as Brown scrambles to keep everyone safe and complete his job, all the while resisting tempting bribes that are offered at every turn.

It is most often identified for being a “train movie,” which is not surprising, but my favorite moments in the film actually come very early when Brown and Forbes are picking Mrs. Neall up at her apartment. The back and forth between the detectives and the gangster’s wife is as crisp as anything in noir and sets the stage for the moral acrobatics that Brown will play out in his mind throughout the film. Very early on it is made clear that he is upset that the life of his partner – a family man with a wife and children – has been sacrificed so an unappreciative, snobbish trophy wife living off the riches of a criminal can be safely transported. The encounter in the apartment and the ensuing shootout in a shadowy staircase are pure noir, photographed very well by Nicholas Ray favorite George Diskant. The bulk of the action on the train plays more like a conventional thriller than noir, but the snappy dialog and taunting between Neall and Brown keeps it in familiar noir territory.

It’s nice to watch ultimate tough Charles McGraw as a good guy for once, rather than the usual second-rate hoods he plays in so many movies of the era. His Det. Brown is more of a hardened hero, maintaining the cynical outlook that just seems to fit with McGraw’s overall persona. The real treat here, though, is Marie Windsor, who plays Mrs. Neall as hell on wheels. I’ve referred to her as “ungrateful” already in this piece, but even that is an understatement. She openly taunts Brown, as if at any moment she will decide to call the whole thing off and not follow through with her testimony. This is the cause of the distress that haunts Brown, as he does not want to come to the conclusion that his good friend and partner could have potentially died for no reason. Windsor is spectacular, combining sex appeal and pure attitude. She may not follow through on much of what she says, but Windsor’s Mrs. Neall talks as good a game as any other dame in film noir.

There’s a wonderful twist that I have avoided revealing that works quite well, which is to be commended. Too often, a twist like this would not come off nearly well as it does. The number of intense moments that occur in the close confines of the train solidify The Narrow Margin not just as a top-flight noir but also as one of the premier action movies and thrillers of the era also. This is another one that I might ultimately regret not ranking even higher.


  1. McGraw as a hero? Why haven't I seen this film? After your review I think it imperative that I do so.

  2. McGraw is so cool. If I'm remembering correctly, there's a POV shot in this film of one of the thugs as he is kicked in the face! It's wild. Great write-up as usual, Dave.

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  4. This is a great little film Dave, Fleischer actually made quite a few good small budget noirs, The Clay Piegeon, Armored Car Robbery, Violent Saturday (which you listed earlier) and Follow Me Quietly. I love train films, don’t ask me why, maybe it has something to do with the claustrophobic atmosphere they create. The remake with Gene Hackman is decent but nowhere near as good and MacGraw, what a hard-ass he always is (lol). Of course, George Diskant is the cinematographer making another appearance has to be given some credit here. I would have pushed this up the listing a bit but that is nether here nor there. Great review Dave.

  5. I love this film, too. Marie Windsor is a fantastic femme fatale, and Charles McGraw brings real edge and energy to his cop role. What's most striking about the film, though, is its deft handling of the tight spaces of the train, the way the camera follows McGraw back and forth through these corridors, capturing the claustrophobic tightness that forces him to squeeze by other passengers and dodge through the corridors trying to keep the bad guys guessing. It's great stuff. I also love the scene — I won't spoil it — with the phonograph; if you've seen the film you'll surely know what I mean.

  6. It has a wonderful noir look that begins to dissipate once the action takes place on the train. Overall though this is a good film that deserves your high placement. Windsor is wonderful as always. Some plot holes hurt the film slightly. I did read somewhere though that a scene was removed by the studio which contributes to this......M.Roca

  7. I don't think I've valued this film as much as many have, even though I'll concede as far as low budget "B" films go this is as economical as they come especially in the taut screenplay and the setting. I thought there was one unfortunate flaw that made a critical matter come off as unbelievable, but I agree with you that this is as effective and action film as a noir. This is the third time in your countdown where you have picked a film photographed by George E. Diskrant, and his work is again exceptional. By rights this film should make my runner-yp list for 1952, but I've never quite thought of it in those terms.

    This is among your best essays for the series.

  8. Samuel - Check it out ASAP! The DVD is outstanding and looks great.

    Doniphon - Yes, there are some very cool shots in this film. I really like that screencap I have in the write-up, of McGraw looking out the window of the train and seeing the carload of hoods that is following to meet him when they stop.

    7tavern - I have no clue how to respond to this, but thanks for the kind words!

    John - Yes, it very easily could have been higher, but it's getting so tough to separate them now!

    Ed - Yes, Ed, I tried not to spoil anything with this the review also! But your comments here are spot on.

    M.Roca - The possible plot holes have never really bothered me. A bit far-fetched at times? Yes, but that comes with the territory in thrillers of the era.

    Sam - Thanks on the compliment for the essay! This is one that certainly might not completely blow someone away, but in the end it's impossible not to acknowledge that Fleischer got some great results here.

  9. Loved it, and not only the twist at the end. McGraw playing a non-villain is something fresh, too.

  10. ***SPOILER***

    Sorry guys, but Marie Windsor is not a femme-fatale in this one, as the twist makes clear.

    It is a solid thriller, which starts off in noir mood but develops into a smart thriller with few noir pretensions.

    For me this film is all about Marie Windsor as the dame in trouble scrapping with her cop protector. She dominates every scene with her aura of sex, excitement, and nervous fear. Her great lines are delivered flawlessly with great rolling of her incendiary eyes and almost always with a cigarette in her mouth or hand. You don’t want this vixen to leave the screen.

    She is brutally bumped off towards the end, and to my exasperation is never alluded to again. This cheapens the rest of the story for me, because she is the one character who is exposed to the most danger, and merits the greatest kudos. To be simply forgotten is almost misogynistic.

    Howard Hughes as then owner of RKO had a hand in screwing the screenplay...

  11. The classic fight scene in the train was ripped off by Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in "From Russia, From Love".

    Despite no mention at all regarding Marie Windsor's brutal demise at the end of the film, it is well worth watching.

    A underrated gem of a film.