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The Narrow Margin (1952)
When a mobsters wife decides to testify against his evil deeds she goes undercover to avoid being killed. Now that he's coming to trial she has to be escourted across country via train in order to testify. Cop Walter Brown and his partner are assigned the task, but the mob are on their trail.
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
I'm a huge Charles McGraw fan. Every film he had a large part in, he excels and makes the film better.
Having seen this film 4 or 5 times, my respect for it has grown over the years.
The cinematography isn't perfect - the film probably could have benefited by staying dark and grainy as it seems to be in the early, night scenes.
The taut train scenes seem too bright, but there's nothing wrong with it, simply my preference. A darker train would have made for a more sinister film. Even so, there's plenty of excitement.
The crackling dialogue between Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor is consistently sharp. Seriously, you will have a hard time finding anything more bitter than those two. I'm not sure any other male-female could have made the dialogue (which in a 1950's way is almost corny) come off so terse, as they continuously bark at each other. Someone needs to count the number of times McGraw tells Windsor to "Shut up!".
The film has some exciting twists and turns; you'll enjoy each one.
Great story, solid performances all the way around. This is a FUN movie.
Trains have it all over ships and planes when it comes to creating a microcosm. On an airplane, everybody's crammed together; nobody can sneak on or leave (except by parachute or defenestration). An ocean liner has its private staterooms and public spaces, but, again, is an island, entire onto itself. But trains stop regularly to take on and disgorge passengers, and they run along their fixed and earthbound course, with windows looking out on rivers and highways, at big cities at high noon and small towns in the dead of night. And so they've always been the preferred vehicle for suspense, with countless thrillers using the rails as their setting. One of the tautest and most toothsome, in its modest, low-budget way, is Richard Fleischer's The Narrow Margin.
It opens in Chicago, where a pair of Los Angeles police detectives are to escort the widow (Marie Windsor) of a recently slain gang leader back to the coast to testify before a grand jury. She's a hard case (`a 60-cent special...poison under the gravy'), and guarding her is a dangerous job. Sure enough, one of the cops takes a fatal bullet in the stairway of her low-rent apartment house (she shows scant sympathy). Windsor's finally smuggled aboard the train, in a Pullman car's locked compartment adjoining that of her custodian Charles McGraw. Almost certainly, one or more mobsters followed her. It's up to McGraw to smoke them out before they kill Windsor, who knows too much. But he slowly learns that some vital information has been deliberately kept from him....
Fleischer makes inventive use of the jostling in the cramped passageways – and of the all but vanished rituals of club cars and dining cars. He packs the train with seasoned character actors, notable among them Jacqueline White, Paul (`Nobody loves a fat man') Maxie, and Don Beddoe. The closely worked script, by Earl Fenton (based on a novel by Martin Goldsmith, who also penned the original material for Detour), doesn't stint on gaudy patter for them to spout (it's a moveable feast of salty epigrams).
Best of all, The Narrow Margin offers the addictive Marie Windsor her meatiest role, showcasing her tough-gal talents. Rolling her huge and extraordinary eyes, she aims her exhaled smoke like a stream of deadly gas and hard-boils her lines into hand grenades (to McGraw: `This train's headed straight for the cemetery. But there's another train coming along – a gravy train. Let's get on it.'). It's one of Hollywood's more perplexing secrets why Windsor toiled exclusively, with the possible exception of her Sherry Peatty in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, in the B-movie ghetto. But she helped make that ghetto the liveliest part of Tinsel Town.
Richard Fleischer's 1952 "The Narrow Margin" takes classic "Film Noir" elements (unusual camera angles and lighting, deep shadows, ambiguous characters in jeopardy), and moves everything into the tight confines of a train, creating a cramped suspense classic that never 'lets up'. While the film is, unabashedly, a 'B' movie, few films could match it's unrelenting tension, visual style, and surprising plot-twists...in a feature only 71 minutes long!
The basic plot is simple; L.A. cops Charles McGraw and Don Beddoe arrive in Chicago to escort crime boss widow Marie Windsor, holding essential evidence for a Grand Jury investigation, back to L.A. When Beddoe is shot and killed at her apartment building, McGraw must protect her, alone, against the contract killers on board their L.A.-bound train...But this is Noir, so nothing is necessarily as it seems! Director Fleischer made some brilliant choices in making the film, beginning with his decision not to use a musical score; by relying on the 'natural' sounds of trains and stations, he gives the film a sense of urgency, and forces the viewer to 'pay attention', without the crutch of musical climaxes to single out 'important' moments. Also, his decision to cast McGraw as the lead was inspired; the gravelly-voiced character actor was as familiar to audiences playing a villain as a hero, and his hard-boiled persona, in the 'traditional' Noir 'look' of a fedora and trench coat, with a cigarette in his mouth, offers an ambiguity that holds viewers' attention.
The train is as important a character in the story as the heroes and villains; with narrow passageways, tiny compartments, large windows offering dramatic reflections, and it's isolation from outside communication, each moment on board increases the potential for disaster.
Needless to say, "The Narrow Margin" is among my favorite films, one that I've watched dozens of times, and still get a kick out of! It has a legion of fans (and has influenced two generations of film directors), and if you've never seen it, you have a real treat ahead of you!
Although a B movie, "The Narrow Margin" is considered one of the best of the film noir genre ever made. It's fast moving, like the train that Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White, and some thugs are taking to Los Angeles. The thugs seek to stop a mobster's widow from handing over his "pay list" and talking to the Grand Jury.
The tension really never lets up in this film, as the widow is in constant danger and McGraw keeps running into the criminal element, who have already killed his partner try to bribe him for the pay list. You really experience the narrowness of the train (especially when Paul Maxey tries to get down a corridor) and its movement. It's absolutely wonderful.
Charles McGraw looks just like a stereotypical, tough guy detective, and he had the most marvelous voice. Marie Windsor is at her best as McGraw's charge. She's cheap and uncaring with her sultry hairdo, her trampy negligee, her blaring radio, and a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. Had this not been a B film, Windsor would have gotten more mileage out of it in Hollywood.
There are some great bits in this - one at the very beginning with pearls, and at the very end, using Maxey to great advantage.
This film was remade, with some changes, as "Narrow Margin" with Gene Hackman and Anne Archer. Though it had some fine moments and beautiful scenery (don't bother looking for scenery in the '52 version), this version is superior for its hard-bitten dialogue and atmosphere.
# The film was shot in 13 days and the only part actually filmed on board a train was a few seconds of the arrival in Los Angeles.
# In preference to removing various walls from the sets, director Richard Fleischer decided to make extensive use of a handheld camera that could be brought into rooms; this was one of the first films to do so. To save money the train sets were rigidly fixed to the floor, and the camera was moved to simulate the train rocking.
# Filmed in 1950, not released until 1952. According to director Richard Fleischer, when the film was finished RKO Pictures owner Howard Hughes heard good things about it and ordered that a copy of it be delivered to him so he could screen it in his private projection room. The film stayed in the projection room for more than a year, apparently because the eccentric Hughes forgot about it.