Monday, May 17, 2021

The Narrow Margin (1952)

Director: Richard Fleischer                             Writer: Earl Felton
Film Score: Roy Webb                                    Cinematography: George E. Diskant
Starring: Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White and Paul Maxey

One of RKO’s lesser noir outings, The Narrow Margin has a relatively undistinguished cast but a fairly interesting story that makes up for it. There’s something about it that sort of crackles on the screen. Not a lot, but enough to make it interesting in its own way. Watching the film, I couldn’t help wonder what it would have been like if it had been a Fox property and starred Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney. With both of those stars playing the scenes at a lower boil it might have worked even better. In fact, Howard Hughes was reportedly so impressed with the film that he wanted to remake it with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. The film was directed by Richard Fleischer, and Hughes decided instead to bring him in to reshoot some of the scenes in His Kind of Woman with the two stars, for which Earl Fenton also wrote new dialogue. He does a terrific job here, especially working within the tight confines of a passenger train for most of the picture. Felton’s screenplay was based on a short story called “Target,” by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard, and it has some clever lines of dialogue, though perhaps a bit over the top with Charles McGraw’s hard-boiled attitude. It’s certainly a B picture for the studio, but it holds its own in a field crowded with similar pictures in the late forties and early fifties.

The film begins as a train is pulling into the station in Chicago. Two cops, Charles McGraw and Don Beddoe are on their way to pick up a witness and take her to a trial in Los Angeles. She’s the widow of a mobster and McGraw doesn’t like it one bit. The easygoing Beddoe is older and wiser and doesn’t complain. They have to catch their train in an hour and head to the apartment of Marie Windsor—who isn’t very happy about the whole thing either. On the way out Beddoe is gunned down, and that makes McGraw hate Windsor even more. But he has a job to do, however distasteful, and he intends to see it through. Though the gunman knows what he looks like, nobody knows what Windsor looks like, so he uses that to his advantage and they make it onto the train without anyone spotting her. Nevertheless, McGraw has been tailed by a couple of guys who do everything they can to find her. David Clarke is about as subtle as a sock in the jaw, and doesn’t care a bit that McGraw knows who he is and what he’s looking for. His partner, on the other hand, the smarmy Peter Brocco, tries bribery and guilt to see if he has more luck. Both strike out initially, but it’s a long trip to L.A. with plenty of time for McGraw to make a mistake. And yet he still manages to stay one step ahead of the bad guys without strangling Windsor in the process. For the audience, the longer the trip goes on, the more suspicious the regulars on the train becom--especially fat man Paul Maxey--and the more the tension mounts.

The film is vaguely reminiscent of elements of the atrocious Detour from 1945, in that Windsor is a real bitch and McGraw doesn’t like her one bit. And yet they’re stuck on a nightmare trip together. At the same time, it seems there are recognizable elements that would show up a few years later in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, namely the mysterious blonde, Jacqueline White, who winds up running into McGraw on a regular basis, and a case of mistaken identity. And speaking of Hitchcock, this film has an annoying brat of a kid in Gordon Gebert who essentially screams his lines all through the movie, something Hitch would never have allowed--not just because it’s less grating on the ears but because a polite child is simply much more interesting. One of the more impressive aspects of the film is the cinematography by George Diskant. He does some fine work with a moving camera onboard the train, and especially during the fight scene between McGraw and Clarke. On the flip side, however, is the lack of a real film score. While I’ve cited Roy Webb as composer, the score--when there is one on the soundtrack--was cobbled together from existing cues by various composers including Webb. There’s an attempt to compensate by surprising train noises that sound like gunshots, but it still leaves the film without a melodic center and it suffers for it. While not a great film, The Narrow Margin is an entertaining story working at the edges of film noir and well worth taking a look at.

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