TCM Pick of the Month: Film Noir — Guest Post by Kristina Dijan

My TCM film noir pick for the month of April is a first-rate feature starring Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor and Jacqueline White — The Narrow Margin (1952). To tell you all about it, I’ve invited my pal, Kristina Dijan, author of the Speakeasy blog and Senior Writer for The Dark Pages film noir newsletter, to serve as this month’s guest blogger. Enjoy!

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This is one of the most thrilling, modest, low-budget quickies ever made, and one of my all-time favorite noirs. Police detective Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) is tasked with escorting a gangster’s widow, one Mrs. Neall (Marie Windsor), to trial. From Chicago to Los Angeles. On an express train. Onboard, there are gunmen who want her dead. Simple. High concept, clear goal, few characters, claustrophobic, fast-moving setting, streamlined crime story and a classic.

Windsor and McGraw are formidable opponents.

That may all be true but it’s also complex, dark and full of wickedly fun lines, clever twists and constant obstacles that have Walter dodging repeated murder attempts and contemplating some tough choices. Walter’s partner is shot dead before they even get on the train, which, along with Mrs. Neall’s cold, selfish, contemptuous manner, creates tension between detective and the witness he’s transporting. Mrs. Neall is carrying her husband’s “pay-off” list, which will expose more bad guys and their links to corrupt figures in the LAPD. Now the bad guys on the train don’t know what Neall looks like and mistake another passenger for their target. Walter has to navigate the – you guessed it – narrow margin and decide which side he’ll step to; will he remain the decent lawman or take the bribe he’s offered by the mob to hand over the valuable but detestable woman in his care. And this all happens before a shocking revelation about who and what Mrs. Neall really is. Such a surprise ending after the non-stop race has you looking back, thinking over the details in new light, to figure out motives, moves and meanings of statements.

Director Richard Fleischer creates an atmosphere of claustrophia.

Director Richard Fleischer makes the most of the forward movement and cramped quarters, where our players hide in bathrooms, chase, dodge, take hostages, and knock teeth out of each other, struggling down narrow corridors and tight compartments. The contained world of the train remains mostly disconnected from the outside, with brief stops along the way where frantic communication and exchanges of information happen. As plot urgency and propulsion go, you can hardly engineer any better than this mix: a race, a countdown toward confrontation and exposure, combined with the fog of uncertainty, paranoia and identity confusion, the high likelihood of tragic collateral damage to innocent passengers, and an onslaught of criminals seemingly as unstoppable as the locomotive. The title, the setting, the story, all suggest and construct entrapment, while duping us and Detective Brown with a very familiar noir trope that turns out to be a masquerade, so that there are two disguises at work, and everyone in the dark, since neither the good nor bad guys know exactly who they are working or looking for.

Windsor plays her role with gusto.

RKO head Howard Hughes liked this movie so much he wanted it to never be seen. Not in this form, anyway. Hughes loved the story and saw such potential in it that he wanted it immediately remade as a big A movie with big stars like Robert Mitchum. Luckily The Narrow Margin came out as is, leaving a remake for many decades later, when Peter Hyams did an excellent one in 1990. Not that the original needed improving in any way; Hyams’s is more of a revival, another generation of talent playing with material too juicy to lie fallow. Juiciest of all, what any actress would love to sink teeth into, is the role of Mrs. Neall, which can’t be fully dissected without spoiling the twists, but what can be said is that in the original Marie Windsor plays her with top-notch seductive gusto. She’s a dish, a “sixty-cent special . . . cheap, flashy, strictly poison under the gravy.” Her sparring with McGraw’s Walter is a verbal shootout as wounding and rapid as any with real ammo, and she pushes him to the point where he wants to “step on her face.” It’s a shame – and maybe the only complaint I have about this movie – that such a lady vanishes from the train toward the movie’s end, when we could always use more of that sass and spark.

Don’t miss The Narrow Margin, April 21st on TCM.

Those are some of the plot tricks. The technical ones used to make the film are just as marvelous: the rear projection to show us the passing landscape, the camera that (amazingly, given its size) follows frantic action along passageways that seem impossibly narrow, the gorgeous noir shadows painted across almost every wall and surface, reflections in windows so perfectly placed. And what music do you need in a movie where the sounds are maximally used, like Neall’s rhythmic nail-filing that cuts to, blends right into the clacking beat of the train tracks? I love the “photobomb” where the gangster’s target walks right behind them as they lament not having caught any glimpse of her. Not that they’d have actually seen her even if they did see her, mind you. Don’t worry, that will all make sense if you catch The Narrow Margin on TCM April 21st.

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I’m ever so grateful to Kristina for her guest post, and I encourage you to treat yourself to more of her superb writing by visiting her blog, Speakeasy.

You only owe it to yourself.

~ by shadowsandsatin on April 11, 2020.

3 Responses to “TCM Pick of the Month: Film Noir — Guest Post by Kristina Dijan”

  1. Great to be reminded of this super thriller. No big stars , but could any star have done better than McGraw and Windsor – no!
    My only complaint is always that I wanted some comment from McGraw’s character at the end, expressing his feelings about Windsor.

  2. I can’t imagine anyone reading this and not rushing to see The Narrow Margin.

    I first saw it on Saturday Night at the Movies and host Elwy Yost was so pleased that there was a “Yost” character in the movie. Having recorded it, I loaned it to one of my younger sisters and she said “This isn’t one of those noir things you like, is it?” She’s better now!

  3. Such a great film! The first time I saw it was by accident – knew nothing about it – and had one of those “Where has this film been all my life?” experiences. Terrific review!

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