Directed by Richard Fleischer; produced by Stanley Rubin
A Los Angeles police detective (Charles McGraw) travels to Chicago to bring the widow of a mob boss to California, to testify against her late husband’s associates. The latter will do anything to stop her, anyone on the train to the west coast may be a killer, and the woman being escorted (Marie Windsor) would rather be anywhere else. The cop’s day started out bad and will probably get worse.
The Narrow Margin is the epitome of both a B-picture and a film noir, but is one of the best of both categories. In fact, only the low production values and the lack of big names make it a B, but the small budget is made to work for the movie, and the actors - actually well-known and respected by cinema aficianados - are as good as any high-paid star. The movie’s release was delayed for two years (it was produced in 1950) while studio boss Howard Hughes debated re-shooting the story with larger box-office draws, including Robert Mitchum in the lead.
The director takes the setting - most of it on a moving train - and uses it to advantage. The camera-work is close and claustrophobic. A fistfight in a compartment is not only realistic but almost physically involving for the viewer. Scenes outside of the train are restricted to station platforms, rear seats of taxi-cabs, staircases and tiny apartments; all tied to the principal setting or equally confining. The viewer almost longs for a breath of fresh air, only to be thrown back into the tense box of a railway carriage or corridor.
The actors handle their parts expertly. Fletcher directed McGraw in Armored Car Robbery (recently reviewed on this blog), and so knew how to work with him. McGraw’s character is very similar to that in the earlier film, but displays more personality, more emotion: he feels guilt over a colleague’s death, and softens considerably in the company of a fellow passenger (Jacqueline White, in her last role). Windsor, on the other hand, is the hardest of the hard, giving the impression of callous disregard for everyone but herself. McGraw, one of the toughest of movie tough guys, barely holds his own against her.
The leads’ relationship is reflected in the dialogue. There is going to be no romance between them, and it’s an open question whether the mob will kill Windsor or if McGraw will. When her apathy for others’ suffering becomes too much for him, McGraw barks, “You make me sick to my stomach,” to which Windsor retorts, “Well, use your own sink.” This is what the Charles’s marriage would have been like if Nick and Nora had hated each others’ guts.
Subsidiary characters are well-played, too, and one never knows which side they are on, if any. In particular, Paul Maxey, whose girth uses up precious space in train corridors, lends some possibly sinister mystery. Even when apprised of his stated purpose on the train, one isn’t sure whether he’s genuine.
The Narrow Margin works in pretty much every way, including the brief running time (71 minutes), which cuts out the fat and leaves a lean, brisk movie. How do you make an inexpensive film with largely unknown actors that people are still praising seventy years later? Watch The Narrow Margin and you’ll see.