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Year: 1952
Director: Richard Fleischer

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Cast:

Charles McGraw (Det. Sgt. Walter Brown), Marie Windsor (Mrs. Frankie Neal), Jacqueline White (Ann Sinclair), Gordon Gebert (Tommy Sinclair), Queenie Leonard (Mrs. Troll), David Clarke (Joseph Kemp), Peter Virgo (Densel), Don Beddoe (Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes), Paul Maxey (Sam Jennings), Harry Harvey (Train Conductor), Peter Brocco (Vincent Yost (uncredited)), Ivan Browning (Waiter (uncredited)), George Chandler (Accomplice Running Newsstand (uncredited)), James Conaty (Tenant in Apartment House Hallway (uncredited)), Don Dillaway (Reporter (uncredited)), Franklyn Farnum (Club Car Extra (uncredited)), Don Haggerty (Det. Wilson (uncredited)), Clarence Hargrave (Waiter (uncredited)), Bobby Johnson (Redcap (uncredited)), Milton Kibbee (Tenant (uncredited))

Storyline:

Back in 1952, during the waning days of film noir, director Richard Fleischer made The Narrow Margin, a cheaply produced, tightly structured B movie thriller about a cop forced to protect a gangster's widow while on a train. While it's no work of art, Fleischer's noir features a shocking climax of mistaken identity, an ominous, claustrophobic atmosphere, and tough, nearly unlikable protagonists screwed by fate, who spout sharp-witted dialogue and feel little more than contempt for each other. When Hollywood remakes itself, all the understatement and charm is usually lost when the filmmakers try to "modernize" the subject matter. This is one of many problems with writer-director Peter Hyams's remake (given the slightly shorter title Narrow Margin). He's dumped the surprising plot twist (it's now an action set piece atop a moving train) and softened the characters (now played with sleepwalking intensity by Gene Hackman and Anne Archer) with preposterous motivations. All that seems to be intact is the train premise, but Hyams is more interested in its action potential than any kind of menacing atmosphere. He's dropped the ambiguous relationships and smart dialogue in favor of pumping up the action sequences and daredevil stunts to ridiculous levels. Instead of adding excitement, all Hyams's expensive tricks do is drain Narrow Margin of any tension it might've retained from the original. - Dave McCoy

Reviews:

I'm a huge Charles McGraw fan. Every film he had a large part in, he excels and makes the film better.

Having seen this film 4 or 5 times, my respect for it has grown over the years.

The cinematography isn't perfect - the film probably could have benefited by staying dark and grainy as it seems to be in the early, night scenes.

The taut train scenes seem too bright, but there's nothing wrong with it, simply my preference. A darker train would have made for a more sinister film. Even so, there's plenty of excitement.

The crackling dialogue between Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor is consistently sharp. Seriously, you will have a hard time finding anything more bitter than those two. I'm not sure any other male-female could have made the dialogue (which in a 1950's way is almost corny) come off so terse, as they continuously bark at each other. Someone needs to count the number of times McGraw tells Windsor to "Shut up!".

The film has some exciting twists and turns; you'll enjoy each one.

Great story, solid performances all the way around. This is a FUN movie.

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Trains have it all over ships and planes when it comes to creating a microcosm. On an airplane, everybody's crammed together; nobody can sneak on or leave (except by parachute or defenestration). An ocean liner has its private staterooms and public spaces, but, again, is an island, entire onto itself. But trains stop regularly to take on and disgorge passengers, and they run along their fixed and earthbound course, with windows looking out on rivers and highways, at big cities at high noon and small towns in the dead of night. And so they've always been the preferred vehicle for suspense, with countless thrillers using the rails as their setting. One of the tautest and most toothsome, in its modest, low-budget way, is Richard Fleischer's The Narrow Margin.

It opens in Chicago, where a pair of Los Angeles police detectives are to escort the widow (Marie Windsor) of a recently slain gang leader back to the coast to testify before a grand jury. She's a hard case (`a 60-cent special...poison under the gravy'), and guarding her is a dangerous job. Sure enough, one of the cops takes a fatal bullet in the stairway of her low-rent apartment house (she shows scant sympathy). Windsor's finally smuggled aboard the train, in a Pullman car's locked compartment adjoining that of her custodian Charles McGraw. Almost certainly, one or more mobsters followed her. It's up to McGraw to smoke them out before they kill Windsor, who knows too much. But he slowly learns that some vital information has been deliberately kept from him....

Fleischer makes inventive use of the jostling in the cramped passageways – and of the all but vanished rituals of club cars and dining cars. He packs the train with seasoned character actors, notable among them Jacqueline White, Paul (`Nobody loves a fat man') Maxie, and Don Beddoe. The closely worked script, by Earl Fenton (based on a novel by Martin Goldsmith, who also penned the original material for Detour), doesn't stint on gaudy patter for them to spout (it's a moveable feast of salty epigrams).

Best of all, The Narrow Margin offers the addictive Marie Windsor her meatiest role, showcasing her tough-gal talents. Rolling her huge and extraordinary eyes, she aims her exhaled smoke like a stream of deadly gas and hard-boils her lines into hand grenades (to McGraw: `This train's headed straight for the cemetery. But there's another train coming along – a gravy train. Let's get on it.'). It's one of Hollywood's more perplexing secrets why Windsor toiled exclusively, with the possible exception of her Sherry Peatty in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, in the B-movie ghetto. But she helped make that ghetto the liveliest part of Tinsel Town.



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