The Narrow Margin (1952)

Director: Richard Fleischer

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Before Richard Fleischer made some of his varied and iconic films—Fantastic Voyage, The Boston Strangler, The New Centurions, Soylent Green—he learned his craft and showed his great potential in the B-movie market. Luckily, Fleischer was tapped to bring another great story by Detour writer Martin Goldsmith to the screen. Although he didn’t have the services of Goldsmith to write a screenplay quite as smart as Detour, Fleischer brought a bit more money and greater skills than Edgar G. Ulmer could have to the task. The result is The Narrow Margin, a taut, cat-and-mouse game played on the claustrophobic cars of a California-bound train.

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Charles McGraw brings his noirish toughness to the role of Detective Sergeant Walter Brown, who, with his partner Detective Sergeant Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe), is charged with bringing an important witness in a mob trial safely from Chicago to Los Angeles. The witness is the wife of the defendant, Frankie Neall. Marie Windsor’s Mrs. Neall is tough, frightened, and a real handful. As Brown and Forbes escort her from her guarded apartment, her large-beaded necklace breaks. The beads tumble down the stairs, with a few landing at the feet of a shadow—a man in a fur-collared topcoat holding a gun. Forbes heads down the stairs first with Mrs. Neall close behind. Not close enough, however, for the gunman, who fires, hitting and killing Forbes. Brown gives chase through the city streets, but the gunman escapes. A heartbroken Brown escorts Mrs. Neall to Union Station, angry that Forbes died for a lowlife chippy like her.

It doesn’t take long for Brown to spot the gangsters who intend to ensure that Mrs. Neall never makes it to Los Angeles. Pencil-mustachioed Joe Kemp (David Clarke) keeps a bead on Brown, watching to see which car he boards. Brown evades him by hiding behind a cart of luggage; unfortunately for him, Kemp spots him through the train windows. Kemp and his partner, the efficient and evil Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco), set up in their compartment and make plans to intercept Brown and take out Mrs. Neall.

Mrs. Neall is confined to her compartment, of course. Brown goes to the dining car and is seated with a pleasant and attractive blonde named Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White). He orders “the same as she’s drinking,” and she proceeds to spill her drink on him. After this meet-messy, she comments on how jumpy he is. He distractedly chitchats with her, all the while watching Kemp at another table. When Kemp stands up to go, Brown abruptly leaves.

Various moves are made in this game, from Yost offering Brown a considerable sum of money to turn his witness over (plying him with a photo of Forbes’ grieving family who, he reminds Brown, have just lost their breadwinner) to reading each other’s telegrams. Brown inadvertently has more and more contact with Sinclair and her son, putting them at risk. A huge passenger (Paul Maxey) blocks passage through the train cars in a couple of amusing scenes, but soon becomes a player in the game. As the miles tick away, the gangsters become more determined than ever to hunt down and kill Mrs. Neall, and Brown, if necessary. At the same time, Brown’s growing concern for Mrs. Sinclair has him take his eye off the ball, endangering all of them.

The film’s vérité techniques are handled extremely well, adding to the suspense. For example, at one point, Brown asks that an urgent message be telegraphed ahead to one of the train stops. The hubby and I both gasped when a lineman hooked a large, metal ring holding the message with his arm as the speeding train passed by. Another example in the trailer below shows Brown and Kemp in a surprisingly violent fistfight that clearly had the camera operator scrambling to keep out of the way and hold focus.

The film was marred by a plot twist that made one particular action unbelievable, and the script laid it on pretty thick about Brown’s anger at Mrs. Neall. Why Marie Windsor had to play most of the film in a lace negligee is beyond me, too.

Narrow%20Margin%202.jpgThese flaws were easy to overlook given the film’s especially strong performances, particularly Paul Maxey, who went from affable to outraged, and Windsor, who colored her gangster’s moll with just the right shade of nervous fear at what she was about to do. Jacqueline White, in her last screen performance, was calm, bemused, and discreet in opposition to McGraw’s anger and nerves. The pair worked well together, though I didn’t feel the attraction that I think Fleischer intended to inject into the relationship. Even Ann’s son Tommy (Gordon Gebert) was pretty good, mainly avoiding a cloying juvenile performance.

If you’re in the mood for trains, dames, and danger, The Narrow Margin is the film for you.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    5th/06/2008 to 9:18 am

    Dennis just reviewed Mandingo a couple of days ago at SLIFR. Fleischer’s all over the place. I’ve never seen this one but I’ll load it up in the queue.
    One technical question: Are you implying with “a lineman hooked a large, metal ring holding the message with his arm as the speeding train passed by” that his arm gets caught (and is torn off?) or that he put his arm through the ring and retrieved it as the train was moving? Sorry for being a bit slow on this one.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/06/2008 to 9:33 am

    Hi, Jonathan. Enjoying your stint as a guest blogger at Film Experience. I’m surprised some GOP hater hasn’t suggested a man play Mrs. Clinton.
    Yes, I noticed an abundance of Fleischer, too, and started to read the Mandingo (too long to finish right now); I saw that movie back in the day but don’t remember much besides the old lady checking out Mandingo’s “package”. I was jazzed to find that great link on The Evening Class about Charles McGraw to add here.
    To clarify, the lineman retrieved the message by hooking his arm through the ring. It’s really hair-raising.

  • Rod spoke:
    5th/06/2008 to 12:15 pm

    The Narrow Margin is a terrific film that I admire a lot (I also have a certain fondness for Peter Hyams’ remake, chiefly for Gene Hackman and resetting it on an atmospheric Canadian Rockies tourist train). Possibly even better is Armored Car Robbery, Fleischer’s previous film with Charles MacGraw, which might well have an influence on The Killing. Yes, Fleischer is being rediscovered at the moment, with good cause – his films are uniquely stylish without being showy, with a gift for keeping narratives on a knife-edge between cool style and hysterical, even grotesque behaviour. Just yesterday I was watching his See No Evil, one of the sharpest horror films of th ’70s.

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