TCM Pick of the Month: Film Noir
With the abundance of great film noir airing on TCM this month, you’d have thought I would have a problem selecting a single film to recommend for November’s pick. Not so! Despite such gems as The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, and Born to Kill, I didn’t think twice about offering for your consideration The Narrow Margin, airing November 26th. It’s got two of noir’s most fascinating performers – Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor – a unique story, and fast-paced direction. If you’ve never seen it, you simply must – it’s one of my favorites!
It’s a very simple one – Police Det. Sgt. Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) is charged with safely escorting, across the country on a train, a gangster’s widow planning to testify against the mob – or as the Sarge succinctly says it: “a COD package to be delivered to the L.A. grand jury (and there’s no joy in it).”
I like the opening scene – it does a good job introducing the gruff, no-nonsense detective, his jovial, cigar-smoking partner, Forbes (Don Beddoe), and the hard-boiled moll, Mrs. Neall (Marie Windsor) that they are accompanying from Chicago to Los Angeles. The scene is chock-full of atmosphere – music blaring as the cops enter the apartment building where Mrs. Neall is holed up, plenty of noirish shadows and claustrophobic corners in the hallway, and Mrs. Neall serving up an attitude so thick and salty you could spoon it into a bowl and sop it up with cornbread.
This time, I came up with three:
“You have her. We want her. How much?” Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco)
“The food stinks and so does your company.” Mrs. Neall (Marie Windsor)
“Sister, I’ve known some pretty hard cases in my time. You make ‘em all look like putty.” Det. Sgt. Walter Brown (Charles McGraw)
The film’s director, Richard Fleischer, was the son of famed animator Max Fleischer. Max Fleischer’s animation studio was one of Disney’s biggest competitors.
Fleischer named The Narrow Margin as the favorite of his films. He also helmed two other noirs, the creepily dark Follow Me Quietly and Armored Car Robbery ( another Charles McGraw starrer), as well as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Boston Strangler, Soylent Green, The Jazz Singer, and Conan the Destroyer.
The movie was shot in 13 days on a budget of $230,000.
Other than a brief scene in which a phonograph is playing, there is no music in the film’s soundtrack.
The film’s producer was Stanley Rubin, who turned 95 on October 8th. He was also a writer, whose screenplays included Macao (1952), starring Gloria Grahame and Robert Mitchum.
Charles McGraw died in 1980, after an accident in his bathroom, where he fell through the glass shower door.
Marie Windsor’s real name was Emily Marie Bertelsen. Two of her favorite films were The Narrow Margin and The Killing (which also happens to be one of my favorites, too!) A native of Utah, the 5’ 9” actress attended Brigham Young University and once won the Miss Utah beauty contest.
Also on the distaff side of the cast was Jacqueline White, who will turn 90 on Friday, November 23rd. Although she was under contract in the 1940s to both MGM and RKO, White didn’t make much of a splash until 1947, when she was seen in Crossfire, which starred the three Roberts – Young, Mitchum and Ryan. In 1950, she got married and moved to Wyoming with her husband, who started an oil business. The following year, while visiting pals in LA., she was spotted in the RKO studio commissary by Richard Fleischer and Stanley Rubin, who offered her the role in The Narrow Margin. It would be her last film.
The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing for a Motion Picture Story. It lost, though, to The Greatest Show on Earth. (Really, voters?) The screenplay was written by Earl Felton, who also wrote the scripts for several other noirs, including The Las Vegas Story and Armored Car Robbery. Both of Felton’s legs were crippled when he contracted polio as a child, but he refused to use a wheelchair and learned to get around with crutches and canes. Felton was involved to some degree with Christine Keeler, whose affair with British government minister John Profumo resulted in the downfall of an administration – a 1962 FBI memo stated that Felton had taken part in orgies with Keeler, her showgirl pal Mandy Rice-Davies, and others including Profumo and actor Douglas Fairbanks. And in her 2001 autobiography, Keeler claimed that Felton was working for the CIA. Felton committed suicide in May 1972.
Watch for this goof: in the scene where Brown carries a little boy kicking and screaming down a train car corridor, keep an eye on the boy’s mouth when Brown puts him down. After Brown explains to his nurse that the boy got lost, you’ll hear the tyke say, “I did not! He’s got a gun under his arm – I felt it! Call the police!” But his lips are mouthing something else altogether. Speaking of goofs, in the kid’s first scene, when Brown ducks inside his berth on the train, listen to what his nurse calls him. (His name is Tommy, but she clearly refers to him as “Tony.”)
The Narrow Margin was remade into a film by the same name in 1990. It starred Gene Hackman and Anne Archer. It was awful.
But the original is awesome! Don’t miss it – it airs in the early morning hours on Monday, November 26th on TCM, so you may want to set your DVRs (or VCRs, if you’re like me). Either way, be sure to catch it.
You only owe it to yourself.