Noirvember Review: The Narrow Margin

While the era of train travel may be over, it made for a truly great set piece in a variety of movies. The idea of a confined space moving at a fast speed no doubt adds tension and thrills in of itself. I am sure this proved to be a challenge for some filmmakers, but many thrived in this spot. Among them was veteran director Richard Fleischer who in 1952 gave audiences a ride they would not forget in the noir thriller The Narrow Margin.

A pair from the Los Angeles PD detectives Brown and Forbes are dispatched to Chicago in order to pick up, Frankie, the ex-wife of a recently slain mob boss. Their assignment is to get her and the list of people her husband paid off on a train back to the City of Angels. From the start they realize how dangerous this job is, when a hitman in a fur-lined overcoat takes out Forbes before they even make it to the station. Once onboard, Detective Brown and a gangster named Kemp become keenly aware of each other though they play things close to the chest so as not to draw the attention of the others onboard. As the two play their cat-and-mouse game flying down the rails, other colorful character are pulled into the thick of it. This includes the lovely Ann Sinclair who Brown has fallen for and inadvertently put in danger. Of course the detective is not the only one with secrets on this train as twists and turns make him question who he can trust.

Director Richard Fleischer undoubtedly ranks among the most versatile directors in Hollywood history. Throughout his decades long career, he showed an aptitude for any style from: comedy to war epic to fantasy to dystopian sci-fi. But he got his start at RKO making film noir in their B-movie division. He earned the good graces of his bosses by consistently finishing productions on time and under budget. Not only was he an efficient and solid filmmaker, but his pulp flicks are still to this day held up as some of the best the style has to offer. With this film, he may have proven himself too much, as studio boss Howard Hughes loved this movie to the point, he refused to release it until Fleischer did lengthy reshoots on the famously troubled production His Kind of Woman. In the Narrow Margin, he truly takes advantage of the limited space offered by a train. The hallways are claustrophobic and the cabins are cramped, if there is any trouble no character has a path of escape. One of the great cinematographers of the noir movement, George Diskant, no doubt had a fun challenge capturing this story under this limitation. The suspense builds and comes beautifully to a head when the hitman in the fur-lined overcoat returns with a vengeance and Brown has to stop him. At the same time he is worrying about a suspicious car keeping up with the train that he hopes the State Patrol can stop before they try anything. Everything about this is timed and executed to perfection by the director.

Fleischer is helped immensely by working off an excellent tightly plotted screenplay courtesy of Earl Felton who picked up an Oscar nomination for his labors. While the Narrow Margin starts off rather straightforward, the writer makes sure nearly every character has something they are holding back including one in particular. When said secret is revealed it comes at the perfect moment for the maximum impact on the film. Aside from plotting and characters, if anyone wants a clinic in how to write tough pulp dialogue this is the flick to look to. Nothing seems forced or over-the-top but rather genuinely gruff. Lines like: “What’s the use of makin’ that kid an orphan? Or maybe you like trouble?” and “Not ’til you tell me something, you cheap badge-pusher!” instantly hit the viewer with their coolness. And of course the cast delivers these lines to perfection, especially the leads Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor who consistently trade barbs with each other.

Thanks to a performance from Charles McGraw, Detective Brown is completely and utterly believable as the badass cop he is supposed to be. With a determined sneer and a gravelly voice, he is a man who knows he’s down but willing to keep going, even if it is in vain. As any Noirista worth their weight in bullets and cigarettes should know, actress Marie Windsor absolutely owns her role as the supposed widow of a mob boss. From the start of the film Detective McGraw braces himself for a woman who is “the $0.60 special. Cheap. Flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy” believing that is the exact type of woman who would “marry a hood”. Naturally the woman he meets is smart-mouthed, cynical and does not put up with any crap from anyone. When Brown’s partner is killed rather than empathizing with the upset detective she callously questions if he can capably protect her. These two characters make no secret that they despise each other adding an extra challenge to Brown’s job of protecting her.

One of the many fan favorite film noirs from RKO’s B-movie unit, the Narrow Margin dealt with heavy interference from the legendarily eccentric studio boss and ultimately sat on the shelf for a long while. When it was released, the movie became a bit of a hit at was ultimately one of the few profitable RKO productions in 1952. If you have a layperson in your life you wish to introduce to the dark and dangerous world of noir this would be a great flick to open with. It is a fast-paced pulp thriller full of twists and stone cold cool characters.