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The Narrow Margin (1952)

Lean, twisty late-entry film noir from B-movie director Richard Fleischer that deserves to be seen and considered more often as a classic noir example.  Good lord, was this a pleasant surprise.  First of all, a guilty confession; I love movies set on trains.  There’s something about that antiquated style of transportation that delights me and seems like a perfect backdrop for classic movie suspense.  Think about it; you’re confined in tight quarters and moving at the speed of light, with windows of speeding landscape providing their own movie frames within the frame, allowing for the background action to comment on the foreground action.  I guess the modern equivalent is to set suspense movies on planes, but there’s something far more cinematic about train travel, especially for film noir.  Even the establishing shots of speedy trains fill the screen with billowing images of black smoke, foreshadowing the pent-up evil that can build-up and break out of the noirs tightly-would characters.

And for all the film noir characters, few are as tightly wound as The Narrow Margin’s Sgt. Walter Brown, played so perfectly by dependable tough-guy Charles McGraw.  He’s been assigned to pick up a murdered gangster’s moll (Marie Windsor, tough as her nail file) and transport her to LA.  She’s testifying against her late-hubbies compatriots for the DA in exchange for her freedom and protection, which has naturally made the rest of the underworld nervous.  Things go bad when Brown and his partner pick up Windsor, and Brown’s partner gets killed in the transition.  So it’s entirely up to Brown to get Windsor to safely from Chicago to LA.  And the train is crawling with sketchy gangsters and corrupt lawyers offering bribes.  Will he make it?  As Windsor begins to grate on his last nerve, will he take a bribe to bump her off, giving the money to his dead partners family?  Will the casual conversations he’s having with the blonde in the diner car confuse the gangsters, causing them to kill the wrong dame?

I dare not say.  With a super-noir script by Earl Belton, The Narrow Margin is a thoroughly entertaining kick throughout, packing more tough-guy lines per pound into a speedy script that flies by as fast as the train.  Belton peppers in delightful characters as well, many of whom we get to know through their comings-and-goings in the cramped train quarters.  Belton even manages to give Brown a convincing and organic character arc; in the first scene he’s bad-mouthing gangster gals, comparing them to a greasy-spoon’s blue plate special (“cheap,” he muses about his potential escort, “and nothing but poison under the gravy”) to realizing that he shouldn’t assume anything.  While some of the twists and turns might feel too forced and stylized, and totally out of left field, they’re perfect for this movie, especially one that totally left me flabbergasted.  There’s a moment where I felt that everything I had loved about this film had just totally been destroyed by a single action, a flaw so miscalculated that I couldn’t believe it was happening.  But then it’s revealed to be a clever twist, another bump on the train tracks, and I loved the movie more then I thought I could.  And I haven’t even spoken on the underrated cinematography; check out the shots of Windsor’s pearls revealing the feet of a potential assassin, or Fleischer’s clever use of foreshadowing revolving around Brown’s partner’s cigar.  “You’re dead,” Brown says on their way to retrieve Windsor, lighting his stogie back up.  Match that with the heart breaking look on his face as he wipes the last bits of fallen cigar ash off his partners overcoat.  There’s an incredible amount of economic visual storytelling happening all within six minutes; an entire friendship and partnership visualized from spark of life to ashes of death in just a couple of shots and scenes. 

If you love classic Hollywood, film noir, black and white movies, gritty tough guys and gals spitting out clever bits of banter, or just movies in general, make an effort to see this flick.  I grantee you’ll love every quick minute of it.  It’s an underrated noir, often applauded as a solid B-movie that deserves to be counted amongst the A-gamers.

Photo courtesy of forum.foreignmoviesddl.org

Notes

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