The Narrow Margin (1952)

The Narrow Margin (1952) is a tightly-drawn and unyielding train-bound classic film noir thriller starring Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor, largely set on board a cross-country passenger locomotive.

The set-up is that Detective Sergeant Walter Brown (played by Charles McGraw) has to protect a mob boss's widow, Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor), as she rides a train from Chicago to Los Angeles to testify before a grand jury. 

The boss's wife is also carrying a payoff list that belonged to her murdered husband and the mob's hitmen do not know what she looks like. On the way to pick her up, Brown bets his partner and friend, Sergeant Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe), that he knows what she will look like: "She's the sixty-cent special. Cheap. Flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy."

The train is the star of many fine movies, and continues to be so to this day. The reasons are fairly obvious — drama can be most effective and is certainly easy to handle for production, if set in a confined area. 

Marie Windsor deals with the cops in The Narrow Margin (1952)

There is also usually a hint of glamour about trains and longer train journeys. And of course, danger is all around in the form of heavy vehicles, high speeds and dramatic urban and rural architecture.

The results are truly a classic slice of film noir. There are hoods and dames, there are shadows, light-play and danger — there are ambiguities and surprises, and above all and most especially when we hit the rails — there is claustrophobia. 

Charles McGraw in The Narrow Margin (1952)

This claustrophobia is well achieved with a clever use of hand-held cameras, which are often static, and looking down the corridors to right angles, from where people appear and disappear. The ultimate effect of this is that of the train being a maze, which is major achievement. There are also reflective shots across windows, and the final touch is a mysterious pursuit automobile, which piles down the road beside the train, creating an entirely ominous effect.

Although movies tended to be shorter in general in the classic film noir era, there is still a comment to be made here on the length of The Narrow Margin (1952). It's difficult to find any commentary on The Narrow Margin that dopes not use the word 'taut' to describe — but taut it is — and this is not just in the compactness of the train, but in the compactness of the running time. Everything behind The Narrow Margin is densely conceived, including its running time, which is just over 80 minutes.

Marie Windsor in The Narrow Margin (1952)

It has been so long since feature films ran at this length, which is in fact about half the length of the average production today — although there is little or no reason for that, other than to possibly justify egos, admission prices, and whatever other new conventions have evolved around the form.

The success for Richard Flesicher here is that he manages to create the entire world of the film in that small time — including the passenger rail network with its many characters. From the off The Narrow Margin trades in dense shadows and expressive lighting when its in the city, but on the train itself, the world is bare and open. 

Marie Windsor in The Narrow Margin (1952)

The cramped corners work a magic that was picked up by many subsequent directors — including perhaps Alfred Hitchcock who may well have borrowed some compartment photography and props when he made North by Northwest — including the fold out couchette, a clever and memorable feature in both, are essential train properties in each of these flicks.

Marie Windsor and Charles McGraw in The Narrow Margin (1952)

The main effect, and quite unique to this picture at the time, and maybe still, is the fact of people viewing each other and their activities through windows. 

Reflected and repeated train views in The Narrow Margin (1952)

The cop and the mobster are often seen glancing at each other or pursuing each other through windows and in reflections, and in the dining car, hard and seething cop Detective Sergeant Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) sites where he can he can see his opponent Kemp mirrored in a window pane. At the film's climax, reflections in the train window plays an important part in the final shoot out. 

The Narrow Margin (1952) began and ended life as a B-feature, which explains some of the short cuts in length and perhaps plot holes. 

According to Richard Fleischer in his book Just Tell Me When To Cry: A Memoir, RKO owner Howard Hughes was so taken with the film he considered reshooting most of it with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell to release it as a main feature. 

While reshoots did not happen, William Cameron Menzies did film a few additional scenes, and The Narrow Margin's release was held up for two years after its completion. 

Finally, there is a statement made in The Narrow Margin (1952) about misleading appearances, something that classic film noir did very well indeed. All is not as it seems, at least not with everybody. Cops and molls are not always whom they seem, and short yet false trails abound. Even under the steely hard-boiled ultra-noir features of Charles McGraw there is doubt. 

He plays tough, but he certainly loved his partner, and at times he seems to feel affection for the people he is protecting. He remains the moral heart of the film, and the film remains constantly tense. 

Aside from the excellent leads and the hard-boiled fun, The Narrow Margin (1952) is all things trains — including some great train humour.
Walter Brown: Pardon me, I'd like to get through.

Jennings: Sorry, this train wasn't designed for my tonnage, heh. Nobody loves a fat man except his grocer and his tailor!
The death of Detective Brown's partner isn't mentioned at all at the denouement, when it should be wrapping things up and sending everyone home, but the film isn't here for that. The Narrow Margin is as quick and compact as the express train itself. 

Known for its brecity and near-noir perfection, The Narrow Margin is an object lesson in several things, nbot in the least the compact film making of a train-based story.

On the way to meet her, he glibly tells his partner, Gus Forbes that "She's the sixty cent special. Cheap. Flashy. Sticky poison under the gravy." When he and Forbes, both from Los Angeles, first meet her, she says, "How nice. How Los Angeles." Then looking Brown up and down, she snarls, "Sunburn wear off on the way?" My favorite wisecrack occurs after Brown has finally had enough of her wise remarks and lashes out, "You make me sick to my stomach." Her retaliation is a gem: "Well, use your own sink."

Jacqueline White in The Narrow Margin (1952)

Trains have got it made over and above ships and planes when it comes to creating a great and thrilling mystery or noir movie. On an airplane, everybody's stuffed up together and nobody can sneak on later and disrupt things, or even leave — except maybe by parachute or being thrown off.

An ocean liner is good — as in Journey Into Fear (1942) — which is actually set on a kind of freighter —  but such ships have many different locations as well as public and private spaces. 

Trains however makes stops and take on and let off passengers, and like the fatal course of a classic film noir hit, they run a fixed and course, passing highways, big cities and small towns, through the day and into the dead of night. 

The tough-girl talents of Marie Windsor were never better displayed than here, as outstanding as she is in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) Perhaps the film noir tough-guy male equivalent of Marie Windsor could be Charles McGraw who looks tough, sounds rough, plays hard and delivers gruff menace like few of the male exponents of the style.

If there could be said to be a folklore of cinema then there is one early image which never seems to fade, apocryphal or not —  that in an audience in the dawning days of the cinema watching a film of an approaching train. The story goes — as we have all heard — that some of the spectators felt so anxious, that some of them even panicked and ran away to avoid being run down.

True or not, the train effect anecdote is so common that it might even be called a founding myth of the cinema's origin. Oddly, the same is definitely true of virtual reality headsets, within which people really do duck and dodge projected objects.

The institution of the nineteenth-century railroad did however create something highly emblematic of modernity, and this new vision is also connected to panoramic viewing of the world, a new-found vision of the world through technology — the witnessing of new things that alter world view into a newly mediated reality.

This has even got a name given it by Wolfgang Schivelbusch — "panoramic perception" — and as with cinema itself, the idea is that through the train journey came a re-configuration of vision.

Steady on the rails, The Narrow Margin (1952) is for so many reasons a classic film noir, not in the least for its pace, its relentless action, its twists and surprises, and its technically brilliant direction and filming. And of course the dialogue:

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!

Mrs. Neall: Where do you get off, being so superior? Why shouldn't I take advantage of her - I want to live! If you had to step on someone to get something you wanted real bad, would you think twice about it?

Walter Brown: Shut up!

Mrs. Neall: In a pig's eye you would! You're no different from me.

Walter Brown: Shut up!

Mrs. Neall: Not till I tell you something, you cheap badge-pusher! When we started on this safari, you made it plenty clear I was just a job, and no joy in it, remember?

Walter Brown: Yeah, and it still goes, double!

Mrs. Neall: Okay, keep it that way. I don't care whether you dreamed up this gag or not; you're going right along with it, so don't go soft on me. And once you handed out a line about poor Forbes getting killed, 'cause it was his duty. Well, it's your duty too! Even if this dame gets murdered.

Walter Brown: You make me sick to my stomach.

Mrs. Neall: Well, use your own sink. And let me know when the target practice starts!

The Narrow Margin (1952) at Wikipedia

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