Judge Maurice Cobbs likes to see the choo-choo go.
A fortune if they seal her lips!…A bullet if they fail!
Mrs. Neall: When are you going to get it through your square head that this is big business? And we're right in the middle!
Walter Brown: Meaning you'd like to sell out?
Mrs. Neall: With pleasure and profit…and so would you. What are the odds if we don't? I sing my song for the grand jury, and spend the rest of my life dodging bullets—if I'm lucky—while you grow old and gray on the police force. Oh, wake up, Brown. This train's headed straight for the cemetery. But there's another one coming along, a gravy train. Let's get on it.
Facts of the Case
Hard-boiled cop Walter Brown (Charles McGraw, Roadblock) has got a crummy detail: He's got to escort brassy mob widow Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor, Hellfire) from Chicago to Los Angeles by train. Mrs. Neall has a fistful of dynamite—the inside dope on the rackets, straight from her dearly departed husband, a list of names and payoffs that could smash the L.A. syndicate and expose corruption in the L.A. Police Department. That's why the Outfit's sent a couple of tough operators to pry Mrs. Neall loose from Brown, any way they can. They've got him covered, but they don't know what Mrs. Neall looks like; of course, they're willing to dish some heavy cream to find out, and if that doesn't work, there's always the hard way. Will Brown cut the unlikable Mrs. Neall loose for a big payday? Or will an innocent woman (Jacqueline White, Night Song) get caught in the crossfire, the tragic victim of mistaken identity?
The Narrow Margin is a terse, fast-moving crime drama from director Richard Fleischer, son of animation legend Max Fleischer and a legend in his own right among noir enthusiasts. Fleischer's crowning achievement may be this 1952 thriller, despite a long and varied career in movies that included Soylent Green, Fantastic Voyage, The Boston Strangler, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It's a lean, tight film with all the essential trademarks of classic noir stuffed into narrow corridors and cramped train compartments, rocketing along faster than a speeding locomotive to its blazing finale.
Heading up the cast are two staples of the noir genre, rock-jawed Charles McGraw and cynical, world-worn Marie Windsor, two names that must surely be familiar to fans of the darker side of film. There's a purity of being to McGraw's burly two-fisted straight-arrow cop that you'd never find in a modern movie. We never learn why Brown is so relentlessly incorruptible, or what's behind the simmering hatred that occasionally peeks out from behind his stony face, because Fleischer doesn't waste valuable time (or risk deadening the suspense) trying to explain why he is when it's enough to know that he is. Everything you need to know about Brown you learn in the first few minutes of the movie; everything else you need to know you learn from what he does. Film noir is like Italian car racing: What's behind you is not important, and you'll find out what's down the road when you get there. It's a genre of immediacy—of the here and now, a world whose characters need to keep their pasts cloaked in secrecy and can't afford to try to look too far ahead while navigating toward uncertain futures.
Mrs. Neall's future is particularly uncertain. Her impending grand jury testimony makes her the target of a mob contract, but it quickly becomes clear that she's certainly not acting out of a sense of civic duty. In fact, she makes it quite plain that she'd gladly sell out to the mob if she thought it would save her skin, and she makes no bones about the fact that she thinks Brown would too. In point of fact, she'd prefer that Brown sell out so that he can split the payoff with her and she can disappear, far from the long reach of the Outfit. And she's hard-boiled enough to not really give a damn that an innocent woman might take a dirt nap for her, which brings Brown's outrage to the fore:
Walter Brown: Sister, I've known some pretty hard cases in my time. You make 'em all look like putty. You're not talking about a sack of gumdrops that's gonna be smashed—you're talking about a dame's life! You may think it's a funny idea for a woman with a kid to stop a bullet for you, only I'm not laughing…You make me sick to my stomach.
Mrs. Neall: Well, use your own sink. And let me know when the target practice starts!
B-movie regular Windsor plays Mrs. Neall as tough as a two-dollar steak. Fear hardly enters into it; it's more an objective practicality. She has one driving goal: to live, no matter who has to die, and maybe turn a profit. She drips with a trashy, hardened sexuality, slinking around in a lacy black slip, cigarette drooping insolently from her lips and a wisecrack always cocked and ready to fire.
Director Fleischer makes maximum use of the sleek, suspenseful (and Oscar-nominated) screenplay by Earl Felton, using every element to keep the film tense—clocking in at a brief 71 minutes, the movie is stuffed full of momentum. No one can be trusted. Sinister figures lurk everywhere. Deep shadows are a defining element of film noir, but few use those shadows as masterfully as they are used here—the characters feel hemmed in on every side, from the crowded train station at the start of the movie to the dark, narrow flophouse where Mrs. Neall is hiding out; the shadowy back of a cab, and finally the train itself. One particularly vicious fight scene occurs in a cramped men's room, and the climactic shootout actually relies on the lack of elbow room for its payoff. It's hard not to breathe a little easier as the characters walk off the train and out of the station through a tunnel that leads—finally!—to the light.
Music can be also used to great effect, especially where trains are involved in the movies—think of the dramatic Orient Express sequence in From Russia With Love, accompanied by John Barry's magnificent, driving score. The Narrow Margin goes completely the other way, however, using the absolute minimum amount of music to build tension and inject an added level of uncertainty to the story. With no dramatic chords at key moments or lush orchestration to heighten emotional interludes, the no-nonsense, anything-could-happen-next atmosphere of the story is enhanced even further. In fact, the movie starts not with a dramatic fanfare but with the startling shriek of a train whistle, and similar sound effects dominate the movie, harsh mechanical sounds that punctuate the action scenes and tense chases in the claustrophobic setting.
The Narrow Margin has been given the usual great transfer we've come to expect from the brothers Warner, and although it is not perfect, it only takes a comparison with the included theatrical trailer to appreciate the difference between what they started with and what we've gotten here. Dolby Digital mono is what it is, and this mono is punchy, better than most, in fact—appropriate, since sound effects are essential to a solid and enjoyable presentation of this film. Not much is provided in the way of extras, however; there is only a lone commentary by acclaimed director William Friedkin, with Richard Fleischer offering a thought or two from time to time on various aspects of the movie. Although Friedkin doesn't seem very comfortable with the concept of the film commentary, his remarks and observations are interesting and informative, and this commentary is worth listening to—if for no other reason than for Friedkin's rationale as to why Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ can be considered film noirish.
The Narrow Margin was remade in 1990 with Gene Hackman and Anne Archer; that version is true to its B-movie roots and delivers a few decent thrills, but isn't as noirish and never achieves the same level of tension. It's a good movie. The original is a great one, though, largely due to the lean direction and crackling dialogue, neither of which is a characteristic of the remake. The strongest point that the Hackman version has to offer is its devious twist on the original's twist, but they both benefit from the use of marvelous character actors (the later version features J.T. Walsh, M. Emmet Walsh, and Nigel Bennett). The two actually make for a decent double feature—but just wait until they decide to release Union Station on DVD!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Filmmaker William Friedkin, with Audio Interview Excerpts of Director Richard Fleischer
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