Monday, June 28, 2010

The Narrow Margin is a Fast Train Ride

The tagline to The Narrow Margin states: “That Bullet’s Meant for Me.” And believe me, that is the truth for the unfortunate Mrs. Neall. The Narrow Margin is a film noir made in 1952 and directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer directed several film noir movies which made him famous such as: The Bodyguard (1948), Follow Me Quietly (1949) and Armored Car Robbery (1950). The Narrow Margin is one of his best thrillers.

Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) is a policeman assigned to protect a dead mobster’s wife. Mrs. Neall (Marie Windsor) has agreed to testify before a grand jury. Needless to say, her dead husband’s friends do not want this to happen. She becomes a target and two men are hired to murder her. She is being hidden in a hotel and will be transported by train from Chicago to Los Angeles. Brown shows his contempt for the mobster’s wife by describing her to his partner as: “The sixty cent special--cheap, flashy, strickly poison under the gravy” (I love that line). Unfortunately, Mrs. Neall is indeed rude, dressed cheaply and irritating. As Brown and his partner are escorting her the hotel room, the beads from her necklace break and some fall down the stairs. Two beads land right beside the killer’s feet as he waits at the end of the stairs in the darkness. Brown’s partner goes down the stairs first and is shot and killed. Now it is left up to Brown to get her safely to the train station and on the train.

Mrs. Neall panics in the taxi and tells Brown he’d better be good protecting her because her life definitely depends on him. When they arrive at the station, Brown realizes they have been followed by two mobsters sent to silence the witness. One of the mobsters even tries to bribe Brown, who refuses to let him have Mrs. Neall. Brown successfully hides her in a train compartment without the two mobsters knowing which one. Mrs. Neall is so annoying. She is rude to Brown, flirts with her, and constantly complains. He leaves her to go to the dining car to bring her breakfast when he meets a pretty blonde woman named Ann Sinclair. On his way back to the compartment, he also runs into a woman with a wildly imaginative son. The little boy sees Brown’s gun under his jacket and yells it to anyone within shouting distance. Brown gets around the boy only to be confronted by a fat man who blocks his way. The fat man complains that no one likes a large man on a train and Brown hurriedly gets around him. It turns out that everyone Brown has confronted on the train has secrets he doesn’t know about. The rest of the movie moves swiftly to the ending where, of course, the mobsters try to kill Mrs. Neall.

The film is only 71 minutes and is quickly paced. That is a good thing too because movies on trains can be very boring in such a confined setting. The Narrow Margin is not boring at all because the taunt action, snappy dialogue, and the many twists with the characters keep the movie fast-paced and interesting. I kept wondering how Brown was ever going to outsmart the mobsters and save Mrs. Neall’s life. The screenplay is well-written and the tight direction makes this movie a great film noir. The Narrow Margin was remade as Narrow Margin in 1990 starring Gene Hackman and Anne Archer, which is a good, fast-paced film that's also well worth watching.

The Narrow Margin was shot in only 13 days. The only scene filmed near a train was the arrival scene in the movie. The rest of the movie was filmed on a set. Fleischer used a hand held camera to film the actors going from one compartment of the train into another one, which was a unique idea at the time. The train set was nailed to the floor and Fleischer’s use of the hand held camera made the train appear to move with a rocking motion. The Narrow Margin was filmed in 1950 but not released until 1952. Howard Hughes, then owner of RKO Pictures, had a copy of the film sent to him to view in his private screening room. Hughes thought the movie had a lot of potential and considered making it into a higher class film by editing and even reshooting some of the scenes. Hughes kept the film for a year.

Star Charles McGraw was known for portraying hard-boiled law officers or military leaders in films like Fleischer's Armored Car Robbery (1950). He played the naval commander in The Bridges of Toko-Ri with William Holden. His most famous role may be as the gladiator trainer in Spartacus (1960). He died in a freaky accident at the age of 66 in 1980. He slipped and fell through a glass shower door in his own home.

Marie Windsor, who trained as a stage actress, plays Mrs. Neall. She starred in mostly "B" films, with her most most well-known being the manipulative wife in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956). Jacqueline White, who portrays Ann Sinclair, only made 25 films. This is her most famous "B" picture. However, she did make one "A" picture movie called Crossfire (1947), directed by film noir veteran Edward Dymtryk.

Director Richard Fleischer is the son of the famous animator and producer, Max Fleischer. Richard began his film career directing animated shorts produced by his father such as Popeye and Superman. Walt Disney, who was once his father’s rival as a cartoon producer, asked Richard to direct 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (which was written by The Narrow Margin's screenwriter Earl Felton). Fleischer won an Oscar in 1948 for a documentary entitled Design for Death which he co-wrote with Theodor Geisel who later became better known as Dr. Seuss. Later in his career, Fleischer directed many different kinds of films such as the action movie Mr. Majestyk (1974) starring one of my favorite actors, Charles Bronson and The Vikings (1958). Then he turned his talents to making movies about famous serial killers such as: Compulsion (1959), The Boston Strangler (1968) and 10 Rillington Place (1971). He also helmed one of my favorite “guilty pleasure” films, Conan the Destroyer with Arnold Schwarzenegger (1984). Other notable movies he directed were Barabbas (1961), Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Dr. Dolittle (1967).


  1. Aki, I really enjoyed your review of THE NARROW MARGIN, which is indeed a fast train ride! I love movies set on trains (hmmm...a future poll idea). The confined setting forces character interactions, so if the passengers are interesting--as in THE NARROW MARGIN--the film works well. I also like that Mrs. Neall is not a charming person, thus allowing NARROW MARGIN to avoid the cliched premise of protector falling in love with the one being protected. Thanks for the fascinating background info; I agree that it's a good thing Hughes didn't tamper with it. THE NARROW MARGIN benefits greatly from its low-wattage cast and brief running time!

  2. I have seen neither this film nor the remake. This sounds like a great, nicely paced movie, and since you have good things to say about the '90 version, I'm thinking the original and the remake would make a superb double feature! Like Rick, I really like movies set on trains. Director Fleischer had a pretty impressive filmography. You listed a lot of his noteworthy movies. The only one I can think to add is RED SONJA (1985), but then I guess that's just like his CONAN film. Great write-up, Aki! I loved reading about this film noir.

  3. Aki, I enjoyed your review of this film. I have seen this film and its 1990 remake. While the original has some snappy dialogue and enough action to make it interesting, the remake with Gene Hackman and Anne Archer is much more watchable. I too agree that films on a train can be a little confining, though the 1990 film proves an exception to this rule. This review makes me want to watch both again!

  4. Aki, this is one of your best reviews. Personally, I love movies set in trains, also submarines. Something about the claustrophobic atmosphere can make for extreme tension and taut character interaction. Like Rick, I thought it was very interesting to have the female be an annoying, selfish person, giving a realism to the relationship with the male that you don't often see. Your facts were very interesting, too. Fleischer has apparently done some of my favorite movies, especially Barabbas and The Boston Strangler, both marvelous films. Thanks for an excellent article!

  5. Aki, I have never seen this film, but I enjoyed reading your interesting review. I also enjoy watching films set on trains--specifically Murder on the Orient Express, The Lady Vanishes and Throw Momma From the Train.. The Narrow Margin sounds like a good film noir, so I might check it out.

  6. Aki, I agree with Becky. I think this is one of your very best reviews! Your research is phenomenal and I really enjoyed reading the background information on the stars and director.

    I also enjoy movies set or partially set on trains. Examples of the latter include "White Christmas" where the sisters receive the nice comfortable sleeping berths that were purchased for Wallace and Davis, "North by Northwest" with its bold scene where Eve hides Roger in the upper bed of her compartment, and "Strangers on a Train" where Bruno weaves his "you kill my problem, I'll kill yours" plot.

    Great job, Aki! You make me want to check out "The Narrow Margin."

  7. This is my debut comment on this site. I enjoy both versions of "Narrow Margin." The remake holds up better, but the original has that noir thing going for it and I think that's cool. Fleischer's "Fantastic Voyage" is one of my favorite movies. It's just so darn weird. Anyway, nice review. I hope to stop by here more often now that I've found it.

  8. Thanks everyone for the feedback. It is nice to know THE NARROW MARGIN has its fans. It is an interesting movie, worth checking out if you have not seen it.