The Narrow Margin is a film that I never tire of watching. It’s a very brisk film and one which manages to pack quite a punch in just 71 minutes. This is a film in which no scene or dialogue exchange feels like a waste of time. I also consider The Narrow Margin to be a prime example of how a low budget B movie can sometimes stand head and shoulders above an A film.
The Narrow Margin was an RKO studios film and it was directed by Richard Fleischer.It was shot in just twelve days. The screenplay for the film was written by Earl Felton and it was Oscar nominated.
The film has no music (other than Mrs.Neall’s beloved records), instead the sound effects of the train wheels and ambient noise are all that we hear as the film plays out. I think those natural sounds add a great amount of realism to the film and I like that the scenes are undisturbed by intrusive or over dramatic music.
This film has more twists and turns than a roller-coaster, and it also features some of the greatest lines ever uttered in Film Noir history. The following are just a few of my favourite lines of dialogue from the film.
Brown: “She’s a sixty-cent special. Cheap, flashy, and strictly poison under the gravy.”
Brown: “Take it all, I can’t eat it!” Mrs. Neall: “That’s because you’ve been packin’ away steaks behind my back.”
Mrs. Neall: “Some protection they send me. An old man who walks right into it, and a weeper!”.
Brown: “You make me sick to my stomach.” Mrs. Neall: “Well use your own sink!, and let me know when the target practice starts.”
Brown: “My partners dead, and it’s my fault. He’s dead and you’re alive. Some exchange.”
Mrs. Neall: “Not till I tell you something, you cheap badge-pusher! When we started on this safari, you made it clear I was just a job, and no joy in it, remember?”
Besides the fabulous dialogue, it is the complex and fascinating characters who make this film what it is. Charles McGraw’s detective is one of the hardest, toughest and cynical men that you’ll find in any film, let alone in any Noir film.
Marie Windsor steals every scene she is in as the tough-talking, strong-willed dame who sprays quips and insults around as though they were bullets fired out of a gun. For me this is the best performance she ever gave.
Police Detectives Walter Brown (Charles McGraw)and Gus Forbes(Don Beddoe)are assigned to protect Mrs.Neall(Marie Windsor)and escort her to court. Neall is a mobsters wife who has agreed to testify against her man in court. People associated with her husband are trying to kill her before she can talk in the courtroom.
Brown is tough, cynical and hates the fact that he and his partner are risking their lives for a no good gal like Mrs. Neall. Even though she is testifying, he doesn’t think she’s a good person at heart at all. As they escort her to the train they’ve booked tickets on, Forbes is gunned down by a hitman sent to take out Mrs. Neall.
Brown manages to get Mrs.Neall on the train and locks her in the empty compartment. A number of hired heavies board the train too, and there are now very few places on the train for Brown and Mrs. Neall to hide. Can Brown protect her or not? Brown also has to deal with the distraction of the lovely Mrs. Sinclair (Jacqueline White)who is travelling on the train with her young son. Brown and Mrs. Sinclair strike up a genuine bond and he becomes very fond of her.
This is a very tense film and the train setting gives it an extra level of suspense as there are very few places that Brown and Mrs. Neall can hide once they’re on board that train and it is hurtling down the tracks. The antagonistic relationship between the pair is also very interesting to watch, they loath one another, have wild sexual tension going on, and their verbal sparring is a Noir lovers treat to listen to.
There is a big twist in this film concerning a main character (which I’m not going to reveal because it’s best to go into this film not knowing who it is, this in order to retain the surprise and impact when the reveal does arrive) and when it is revealed, I think that it makes you see this person in a very different light than you did much earlier in the film. When this twist is revealed we also realise that there are two different Police operations being run, and each one is as important and dangerous as the other.
If there is a downside to this film I would say that it lies with the way the sacrifice and murder of this character later on in the film is only referred to once afterwards. When you realise the risk this person was taking and how brave they were, I think that it’s a shame that more time isn’t devoted to acknowledging that sacrifice.That issue aside though this is one of the best Noir films and it is filled with superb performances and many memorable moments.
McGraw gives one of his best performances as the tough as nails Detective who hates his current assignment, but despite his personal feelings he will work hard to protect Mrs.Neall no matter what. He may be mean, abrasive and rough at times, but there is no doubt that he is a good guy underneath all that, and he is certainly someone you would want on your side in a fight.
It’s a real shame that Marie Windsor appeared in so few Noir films because she is perfectly at home in the dark and seedy world of Noir. She’s tough, strong, sexy, and a real natural with that snappy dialogue.
Paul Maxey also turns in a very memorable performance as an overweight train passenger who keeps getting in the way of Brown.
My favourite scenes are the following. Brown fighting in the train compartment. Brown and Forbes meeting Mrs. Neall for the first time. Brown and Forbes discussing what Mrs. Neall is going to be like. Mrs. Neall and Brown arguing after he brings her a sandwich. The reveal/twist murder scene.
Any other fans of this one?