Monday, October 01, 2007

The Narrow Margin (1952)

Landscapes and environment were undeniably integral aspects of many classic film noirs. They seemed nearly as important in conveying the crucial noir elements of suspense and dread as the actors starring in them. From the cobblestone streets of Vienna in The Third Man, the seedy underworld of London in Night and the City, the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles in Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, and of course the concrete jungle of Manhattan in Scarlet Street, The Naked City and Pickup on South Street are just few of some of the numerous possible match-ups. These environments breathed aesthetic life into these films and literally set the stage for the players to interact, investigate, pursue, be chased, live and die on their streets.

But what if our film noir protagonist didn’t have the streets of New York City to hide from his pursuers? What if he was a cop, who had no expansive boulevards of Los Angeles to elude the mob trying to rub out his star witness he was assigned to protect? What if our cop and his witness were confined to small, narrow compartments in a passenger train speeding along at 60 mph? What if that same mob had goons, bent on killing the witness, inside that same train and outside keeping pace with them in a car traveling alongside on the highway? If you’re that cop the preceding picture sounds about as appealing as being a diver in a shark cage during a feeding frenzy. Only these sharks are inside the cage with the diver. In The Narrow Margin the preceding picture comes to life in this expertly executed thriller, with even more twists piled onto the wonderfully contorted premise (warning, spoilers are a comin’).

Our film opens with a pair of L.A. detectives arriving in Chicago with an assignment to protect a widowed mob wife. She’s holding a list of names and the knowledge to put away L.A. Mafia heavies in a graft investigation. The detectives, Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) arrive at the Chicago safe house (which is a not so safe, nor private, boarding house) where the mob widow Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor) is being protected by the local cops. Brown and Forbes must get Mrs. Neall back to L.A. safely so she can deliver the incendiary list of names and testify to the grand jury awaiting her arrival. The transfer goes awry as one of the mob button men kills Forbes and flees before Brown can apprehend him. Brown grabs Mrs. Neall and makes a b-line to the train station with two, one-way tickets to L.A.

The Narrow Margin (1952)
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Mrs. Neall turns out to be a real firecracker of shrew. Previously, on the cab ride from the train station to the safe-house, Forbes and Brown wonder what kind of a woman would become a mobster’s wife also adding the crucial (yet implausible) plot element that “nobody’s seen her.” Brown interjects a profile of the unseen moll, speculating that she “is a dish… a 60 cent special. Cheap, flashy and strictly poison under the gravy.” Forbes counters with foreshadowing insight that “all kinds” of women could potentially marry a Mafia racketeer, not just the stereotypical portrait Brown has painted. However, Marie Windsor’s Mrs. Neall seems to be closer to Brown’s estimate with her sharp tongue and curvaceous body. After their harrowing escape and during the cab ride to the train station with Brown, Windsor expresses zero sympathy for Forbes and the bullet he just took for her. She even begins to flirt with Brown mere minutes after his partner of six years takes the big one for the team. Brown puts the kibosh on her advances saying that she is just a job in his eyes and she quickly backs off by snarling “I wouldn’t want any of that nobility to rub off on me.”

Brown gets Windsor on the train unseen but moments later on the platform, he is spotted by mob goon Joseph Kemp (David Clarke). Kemp follows Brown on the train and the wheels are set in motion for this claustrophobic cat and mouse chase about to take place on a passenger locomotive. Brown has bought two compartments on the train for him and Mrs. Neall and they initially elude Kemp’s snooping around both rooms. But Kemp knows Brown has her stashed somewhere on the train. In addition to Kemp, a mafia liaison by the name of Vincent Yost is also on the train. He confronts and attempts to bribe Brown for the list and the whereabouts on the train of Mrs. Neall (remember the mafia apparently doesn’t know what she looks like). Brown is momentarily tempted, but he can’t be bought and also can’t arrest Yost as he has a squeaky clean record as a sales executive for one of the mob’s legitimate company fronts. Windsor’s Mrs. Neal eavesdrops at the door from the adjoining compartment the attempted bribery by Yost. She later tells Brown that he is a sucker for not taking the bribe and tells him that they could split the money and take off. Brown tells Windsor she makes him sick to his stomach to which she replies, “Well use your own sink, and let me know when the target practice starts.”

While the cat and mouse goes on between him and Kemp, Brown keeps bumping into the attractive, Mrs. Sinclair (Jacqueline White) and her son Tommy around the train. She looks the part of a wholesome woman with a precocious boy who if Ritalin was around in the early 50s, I’m sure he would be receiving the maximum daily dose. It’s no coincidence (kind of) however that Mrs. Sinclair and Brown keep meeting up. As it turns out she is the real Mrs. Neall, traveling clandestinely (as much as one can with a hyperactive eight-year old child and nanny in tow) after the D.A. instructed her to get to the coast undetected. This twist is revealed shockingly after Marie Windsor’s character is finally discovered and bumped off by Kemp and another hit man who boarded the train in Albuquerque named Densel. Equally surprising is Windsor was an internal affairs policewoman, posing as Mrs. Neall and trying to ensnare the seemingly un-bribable Brown in a payoff from the mob.

Now that the tables have been turned the tension is ratcheted up as McGraw’s Detective Brown must protect the real Mrs. Neall (who didn’t know her husband was tied to the mob and turned state’s evidence once she found out), her son Tommy and thwart Kemp and Densel (who we learn is also his partner Forbes’s killer). All of that on a speeding train with the only possible stops left on the line is death or Los Angeles.

While there are some suspect plot holes one could drive a-you-know-what through, director Richard Fleischer keeps the pace moving so quickly that time to dwell on them is not allotted. Clocking in at a lean 71minutes, there isn’t a trace of gristle in this thriller that’s as juicy and satisfying as a thick sirloin steak. Fleischer made a beautiful looking film with near perfect lighting and camera work. The latter aspect comes into play in many scenes but especially the fantastic fist fight between Kemp and Brown in a train washroom. Using a handheld camera (unusual for the time and especially fist fights), the principle actors, low angles and tight shots, make for an amazingly gritty scene of fisticuffs in such a confined, ‘narrow’ space. Fleischer expertly plays with the claustrophobic and restricted space of the train throughout the film and as the tension increases, the shots seem to get tighter and tighter. Another extraordinary aspect and bold choice on Fleischer’s part is the omission of a music soundtrack. In place of a score, Fleischer prominently features the sounds of the train and its workings to audibly add to the mood. From the loud banging together of boxcars forewarning gunplay, to a nice sound match scene transition between Windsor nervously filing her nails and the wheels of the train rhythmically churning, the film is full of these interesting plays of sound and story.

The cast is a well assembled one, each giving superb performances. Charles McGraw’s Detective Brown is the quintessential hard nosed cop, played so tough by McGraw he could sleep on kegs and spit nails as my grandfather used to say. He convincingly conveys the fallibility of temptation (when offered the bribe) adding a nice dimension to the role he’s perfectly suited to play. The scene stealer however is undoubtedly Marie Windsor. Not only is she easy on the eyes, as hers are strictly bedroom, but Windsor executes the role with moxie and flair, without overdoing it. It also helps that she gets the best lines in a dynamite script by Earl Felton from a story by Martin (Detour) Goldsmith. The Narrow Margin isn’t a perfect film but once conductor Fleischer takes your ticket, it’s a trip you won’t regret riding right to the end of the line.

Written by Tim (aka - Mappin and Webb Ltd.)


Anonymous said...


You're dynamite. I know you talk trash and act like a tough broad from the mean streets, sometimes. But I know it's not really you. It's just an act. I understand.

And, I don't care that you're cop either. Quit your job. I'll make it worth your while. Join me.

Hard-Boiled Dick

Rob J said...

BTW, the marvellous fight scene in the train carriage in "The Narrow Margin" was ripped off by Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in " From Russia,With Love".

Guess which movie was remembered ? Still,"TNM" remains a classic of its' kind....

David Detroit said...

Laid out like a long, thin, uncoiled labyrinth, this California-bound train offers no escape from danger. Time moves chillingly slow aboard as the outside world speeds by. Who is in danger? Who is the danger? Who will make it to LA alive?

So much for my pulpy take on the movie. Nice review of a B+ noir classic.

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