A very enjoyable B thriller from a crew with strong film noir credentials. Director, Richard Fleischer, is ably supported by cameraman, George E. Diskant, and the movie features a strong cast of b-liners, with the tough Charles McGraw and the exciting Marie Windsor in the leads. A nice plot twist propels the tension to the end. From the dramatic opening credits of a train screeching through the night, The Narrow Margin, has you hooked.
One of the best on-a-train thrillers, this movie starts off in noir mood but develops into a smart thriller with few noir pretensions. The direction is sharp, the dialog snappy, and the cast top-notch. The early night scenes before the action switches to a train trip from Chicago to LA, are brilliantly filmed and edited, with stark lighting and shadows, and low angles.
On the train, tension is heightened by judicious cuts to the steaming train running aggressively from right to left across the screen. There is a nice piece of montage worthy of Eisenstein half-way through the trip which gives a cut to the train even added tension: the action cuts from Marie Windsor frantically filing her nails to the churning wheels of the steam engine.
For me this film is all about Marie Windsor as the dame in trouble scrapping with her cop protector. She dominates every scene with her aura of sex, excitement, and nervous fear. Her great lines are delivered flawlessly with great rolling of her incendiary eyes and almost always with a cigarette in her mouth or hand. You don’t want this vixen to leave the screen.
She is brutally bumped off towards the end, and to my exasperation is never alluded to again. This cheapens the rest of the story for me, because she is the one character who is exposed to the most danger, and merits the greatest kudos. To be simply forgotten is almost misogynistic.
This weakness aside, the closing scenes are classic compositions which accentuate the escape from the claustrophobia of the train while remaining on the “straight and narrow”:
7 thoughts on “The Narrow Margin (1952): B plus”
Intrepid PI, Dark City Dame, has tracked down an obscure 2002 interview with the producer of The Narrow Margin, Stanly Rubin, who also wrote Decoy (1946) and Macao (1952). Apparently Howard Hughes, owner of RKO at the time of the movie’s release, had a scene towards the end of the film concerning the Marie Windsor character cut:
“[Hughes did one] thing which was not smart, it was just an oversight, I guess, on his part and we didn’t discover it until one night at Cinematheque at the Egyptian. They ran Narrow Margin and someone asked: ‘How come Charlie McGraw and Jacqueline White didn’t go to pay their respects to Marie Windsor, who’d been shot and killed in the line of duty?’ And I said, of course they stop to see her, before you saw them sneaking off the train to go down the tunnel to get into town. Well, we looked at the picture again and that scene had been removed. That moment we had shot was gone. That was a bad, bad, bad oversight on the part of Mr. Hughes.”
When Brown and Forbes enter the tenement and climb the stairs they immediately hear the decadent jazz piece that becomes the sultry Mrs. Neal’s leitmotif. Brown
correctly portends that his hunch about Mrs. Neal is right and the initial meeting is a hoot. The whole sequence takes on a whole new subtext upon a second screening of the film once you know that Mrs. Neal is in actuality a decoy undercover (internal affairs) Chicago cop, Sarah Meggs, playing the gangster moll, and more than tough as nails McGraw’s equal.
Windsor’s turn as a hard boiled internal investigations cop playing a cheap, coarse, sightly seedy floozie is her tour de force. It’s Chicago vs LA and Windsor steals the sceen her large eyes flashing derision.
Forbes: – What’s the music for, a welcome?
CPD: – You don’t know how welcome…. Hey ( to Meggs) turn that thing off … your escorts here.
Meggs (decoy Mrs. Neal) leaves the jazz spinning, flips her hair and struts over and runs her eyes over Brown first then Forbes.
CDP: – Forbes and Brown from Los Angeles…
Meggs – How nice, how Los Angeles ( taking a drag and blasting a mushroom cloud of cigarette smoke into Brown’s face)… Sun burn well… on the way out?
Windsor totally eviscerates McGraw, Beddoe and LAPD, with cutting one liners.
Meggs (Decoy Mrs Neal) is not only a decoy but an internal affairs cop, and she is looking for corruption in LAPD. The initial fact that the “safe house” is already compromized, indicates that the underworld has been tipped off by a mole in LAPD as to the whereabouts of Mrs. Neal and the two main LAPD suspects are Brown and Forbes. If you go with that angle the whole “Mrs. Neal and the list” plotpoint becomes irrelvant and the real plot is corruption investigation in LAPD and who is/are the informer(s). Like you say “Why keep Charles McGraw in the dark” or why not just mail the list.
Now remember Forbes right at the get go tries to get Meggs (Decoy Mrs Neal) to give him the list. Once Forbes buys it, Meggs goes to work on Brown tempting him in the cab with sex and later on the train with money.
My thoughts…. the real plot is LAPD corruption. One of the commentors on IMDb says that he’s read that in the original script that Forbes was definitely on the take. The curious actions of Brown on the train also make you wonder about him, if he was truely that stupid or if he was deliberately exposing Meggs to the gangsters.
Great contribution Ray and a well-argued perspective I had not considered. Thanks! Tony