The Narrow Margin (1952)

Directed by Richard Fleischer
Cinematography George E. Diskant

When a mobster’s wife decides to testify against his evil deeds, she goes under cover to avoid being killed. Now that he’s coming to trial, she has to be escorted across country by train in order to testify. Cop Walter Brown and his partner are assigned the task, but the mob are on their trail.

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Charles McGraw At His Best

10 September 1999 | by gerrytwo (Queens, NY) ā€“ See all my reviews

While director Richard Fleischer gets plenty of credit for his role in making the film noir classic “The Narrow Margin” on a shoestring budget, it is hard to imagine this picture without actor Charles McGraw in the lead role. As a tough cop escorting a witness to testify in Los Angeles, McGraw’s performance is what holds the picture together. Try to think now of one actor around today who could portray a cop who is at times calculating, other times sarcastic and almost always menacing. In the Hollywood of the 1940s and 50s,Charles McGraw usually played secondary roles in A pictures. In “The Narrow Margin,” McGraw shows that with a competent director, he could put on some performance as the star of a movie.

A dark ride that’s maybe the best passenger-train thriller of them all

8/10
Author: bmacv from Western New York
8 February 2004

Trains have it all over ships and planes when it comes to creating a microcosm. On an airplane, everybody’s crammed together; nobody can sneak on or leave (except by parachute or defenestration).

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An ocean liner has its private staterooms and public spaces, but, again, is an island, entire onto itself. But trains stop regularly to take on and disgorge passengers, and they run along their fixed and earthbound course, with windows looking out on rivers and highways, at big cities at high noon and small towns in the dead of night. And so they’ve always been the preferred vehicle for suspense, with countless thrillers using the rails as their setting. One of the tautest and most toothsome, in its modest, low-budget way, is Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin.

It opens in Chicago, where a pair of Los Angeles police detectives are to escort the widow (Marie Windsor) of a recently slain gang leader back to the coast to testify before a grand jury. She’s a hard case (`a 60-cent special…poison under the gravy’), and guarding her is a dangerous job. Sure enough, one of the cops takes a fatal bullet in the stairway of her low-rent apartment house (she shows scant sympathy).

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Windsor’s finally smuggled aboard the train, in a Pullman car’s locked compartment adjoining that of her custodian Charles McGraw. Almost certainly, one or more mobsters followed her. It’s up to McGraw to smoke them out before they kill Windsor, who knows too much. But he slowly learns that some vital information has been deliberately kept from him….

Fleischer makes inventive use of the jostling in the cramped passageways ā€“ and of the all but vanished rituals of club cars and dining cars. He packs the train with seasoned character actors, notable among them Jacqueline White, Paul (`Nobody loves a fat man’) Maxie, and Don Beddoe. The closely worked script, by Earl Fenton (based on a novel by Martin Goldsmith, who also penned the original material for Detour), doesn’t stint on gaudy patter for them to spout (it’s a moveable feast of salty epigrams).

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Best of all, The Narrow Margin offers the addictive Marie Windsor her meatiest role, showcasing her tough-gal talents. Rolling her huge and extraordinary eyes, she aims her exhaled smoke like a stream of deadly gas and hard-boils her lines into hand grenades (to McGraw: `This train’s headed straight for the cemetery. But there’s another train coming along ā€“ a gravy train. Let’s get on it.’). It’s one of Hollywood’s more perplexing secrets why Windsor toiled exclusively, with the possible exception of her Sherry Peatty in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, in the B-movie ghetto. But she helped make that ghetto the liveliest part of Tinsel Town.

Critical response

The film is considered by critics and film historians to be a classic example of the film noir genre. It was well received at the time it was made as a model B movie.

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According to a review in The New York Times,

“Using a small cast of comparative unknowns, headed by Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor and Jacqueline White, this inexpensive Stanley Rubin production for R. K. O. is almost a model of electric tension that, at least technically, nudges some of the screen’s thriller milestones. Crisply performed and written and directed by Earl Felton and Richard Fleischer with tingling economy, this unpretentious offering should glue anyone to the edge of his seat and prove, once and for all, that a little can be made to count for a lot.”

Film critic Dennis Schwartz said, “A breathtakingly suspenseful low-budget crime thriller that is flawlessly directed … The fast-paced pulpish taut story is filled with tense incidents and a well-executed twist ..

The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 84% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 8 reviews.

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Great camera work. Sensational Marie Windsor. Implausible story, though.

6/10
Author: pzanardo (pzanardo@math.unipd.it) from Padova, Italy
23 November 2004

“The narrow margin” is a remarkable film-noir with great merits, unfortunately marred by an implausible story.

There is a policeman (Charles McGraw) committed to protect a key witness (Marie Windsor), in severe danger of life, along a train journey. The only reasonable and likely behavior for the cop is to take some sandwiches, lock in the cabin with the witness, and sit down with a machine-gun on his lap. Of course, that would be the end of the film. So, to get a story, McGraw goes everywhere and does everything on the train, but staying with and protecting the witness. There is also a big surprise at the end. That is really unexpected. But if we think back to the previous events, this big twist makes the behavior of some characters wholly illogical.

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Well, enough with the faults of the movie. The merits of this low-budgeted B-movie overcome its defects. The stylish cinematography is first-rate, and the camera-work is outstanding. The (few) action scenes are brilliant and filmed in a very original way. See, for instance the play of mirrors in the finale. Marie Windsor is sensational, and every scene with her is a treat. What a gangster moll, gutsy tough gal she is! In my opinion, she is even better here than in “The killing”. Her lines are a perfect instance of cynical wisecracking. McGraw and the rest of the cast make a good job, as well. There is a good amount of suspense and no moments of bore.

Let me conclude with a somehow daring comparison. Independently by the composers, classic music of the 18th century is always beautiful. In a similar way, I think that American movies of the 1940s and early 1950s are all good: that is just a question of style, and how I love this style!

I recommend “The narrow margin”, for its intrinsic merits, and to pay homage to a great season of cinema.

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Hardboiled, Intense & Very Fast Moving

8/10
Author: seymourblack-1 from United Kingdom
4 October 2012
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

“The Narrow Margin” is a hard-hitting crime thriller which grips its audience right from the start and never lets go. In a story which is full of intrigue, danger and mistaken identities, the pace is absolutely relentless and the characters are tough and uncompromising. The atmosphere is consistently tense and the blistering dialogue is sensational. Despite its short running time and its “low budget, B-movie” status, this is a remarkably entertaining film which is also directed with above-average skill and flair.

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Detective Sergeant Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Detective Sergeant Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe)are assigned to pick up a mobster’s wife called Mrs Frankie Neale (Marie Windsor), from her apartment in Chicago and escort her to Los Angeles where she is due to testify before a grand jury. Mrs Neale is in possession of her husband’s “pay-off list” and this makes her a target for the mob who are intent on ensuring that she doesn’t reach L.A. alive.

Brown has nothing but contempt for Mrs Neale, so when his friend Gus is shot and killed by a mob hit-man as they’re leaving her apartment building, his hostility towards her becomes even deeper and he also becomes totally disgusted by her complete lack of concern about the incident. Despite his personal feelings and the obvious dangers involved, Brown decides to go ahead and complete his mission as planned.

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Detective Brown and Mrs Neale travel by train to L.A. and have adjoining compartments. During their journey, there is a continual sense that danger lurks everywhere, as both are fully aware that their lives are under threat and it’s not always possible to identify which of the suspicious looking passengers are killers employed by the mob. A fat man and a little boy who are on the train are not who they first appear to be and Brown is very wary of a grim-looking character called Joseph Kemp (David Clarke). Another man attempts unsuccessfully to bribe him and Brown also gets to know an attractive blonde called Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White) who turns out to be friendly and good-humoured. Further killings, surprises and twists then follow before the train eventually reaches its destination.

Charles McGraw as the tough cop who’s permanently on-edge and Marie Windsor as the feisty, self-centred star witness are brilliant as two people who despise each other with a passion and some of the verbal exchanges between them are great. For example, when he says to her “You make me sick to my stomach” she replies “Well use your own sink and let me know when the target practice starts”.

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In common with many other stories where the action takes place on a train, the space within which the characters function seems to become increasingly cramped as the story proceeds and the tension grows accordingly. A variety of interesting camera angles are used to emphasise this feeling and the use of extreme close-ups and images on reflective surfaces are also used to good effect.

“The Narrow Margin” is a great piece of hardboiled entertainment which is incredibly intense, very fast-moving and definitely not to be missed.

Claustrophobic, Suspenseful Noir Classic…

9/10
Author: Ben Burgraff (cariart) from Las Vegas, Nevada
17 August 2006

Richard Fleischer’s 1952 “The Narrow Margin” takes classic “Film Noir” elements (unusual camera angles and lighting, deep shadows, ambiguous characters in jeopardy), and moves everything into the tight confines of a train, creating a cramped suspense classic that never ‘lets up’.

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While the film is, unabashedly, a ‘B’ movie, few films could match it’s unrelenting tension, visual style, and surprising plot-twists…in a feature only 71 minutes long!

The basic plot is simple; L.A. cops Charles McGraw and Don Beddoe arrive in Chicago to escort crime boss widow Marie Windsor, holding essential evidence for a Grand Jury investigation, back to L.A. When Beddoe is shot and killed at her apartment building, McGraw must protect her, alone, against the contract killers on board their L.A.-bound train…But this is Noir, so nothing is necessarily as it seems! Director Fleischer made some brilliant choices in making the film, beginning with his decision not to use a musical score; by relying on the ‘natural’ sounds of trains and stations, he gives the film a sense of urgency, and forces the viewer to ‘pay attention’, without the crutch of musical climaxes to single out ‘important’ moments. Also, his decision to cast McGraw as the lead was inspired; the gravelly-voiced character actor was as familiar to audiences playing a villain as a hero, and his hard-boiled persona, in the ‘traditional’ Noir ‘look’ of a fedora and trench coat, with a cigarette in his mouth, offers an ambiguity that holds viewers’ attention.

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The train is as important a character in the story as the heroes and villains; with narrow passageways, tiny compartments, large windows offering dramatic reflections, and it’s isolation from outside communication, each moment on board increases the potential for disaster.

Needless to say, “The Narrow Margin” is among my favorite films, one that I’ve watched dozens of times, and still get a kick out of! It has a legion of fans (and has influenced two generations of film directors), and if you’ve never seen it, you have a real treat ahead of you!

This movie is a ‘keeper’!

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