The Narrow Margin (1952, Fleischer)


The Narrow Margin

From the word go, credits careen towards yo, setting the pace for this bracingly economical, twisty b-noir that knocked my socks off. Not only one of my personal favorite noirs, but now one of my personal favorite films. The majority takes place on a train, from Chicago to Los Angeles, that moving transport full of confined spaces, trapping all major players and conflicts aboard. It’s a pressure-cooker setting that ignites an already dynamite set-up. The train is full of one-trait caricatures we repeatedly run into as Charles McGraw plays musical compartments.

McGraw plays an LAPD officer, has been assigned to protect and escort a mob boss’ widow (Marie Windsor) who plans to testify before a grand jury. They must take a long windy train ride together, and outsmart the men onboard who are there to get a payoff list and murder her. But hours earlier McGraw’s partner Forbes was murdered while escorting Mrs. Neall out of the building and while he mourns and she scoffs, it is clear the two are going to have to work together if they want to get off the train alive.

The tension between the two leads lends to the claustrophobia of the situation. He resents this wholly unpleasant woman for being alive instead of his partner, and she hurls that resentment right back in his face. And that goes double.

Marie Windsor, who I always enjoy seeing, is like a proto-Illeana Douglas. Her Mrs. Neall is a brassy high-wired dame who has no time for ‘weepers’. She tells is straight, expects you to do the same. She has no sympathy for you and she wants bacon, eggs, toast, a bucket of coffee and some cigarettes. Oh, and she likes her bacon crispy. Charles McGraw has a super-serious demeanor that can get some surprising laughs at just the right moments, whether intentional or not.

If you think you know what The Narrow Margin will be, guess again. It moves along at such a snappy pace that you can hardly keep up with the run-ins and it throws in some plot developments that genuinely threw me. It completely overturns gender conventions already implicit within noir that are, additionally, covertly set-up at the beginning of the picture.

Its formal make-up thoroughly impresses. There’s no score, no non-diegetic sounds in The Narrow Margin. This allows the sound design work to be in the forefront; the chug-chug of the train, the scratch-scratch of a nail file. The tension of the tight hallways and corridors is amplified by consistently inventive techniques. There’s some handheld, clever use of reflection that even plays into the plot and a camera that kinetically follows action, not afraid to gets its lens dirty. Clocking in at 71 minutes, this is a vastly underrated blast from the gritty world of 50’s B-noir. A must-see. Who doesn’t love a film mostly set on a train?

Random Observations:
“All robbers carry guns madam”

 

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