Two Los Angeles detectives travel to Chicago to escort the wife of a mob boss back to LA to testify against her husband. One of the detectives is played by Charles McGraw, Det. Sgt. Walter Brown, and Mrs. Frankie Neil is played by Marie Windsor. Although neither are very well remembered today, both were great character actors and extremely prolific b-movie stars. According to William Friedkin's admiring commentary track the lovely, dark haired and doe eyed Windsor was a Vargas model and a former Miss Utah. The internet clarifies the history a bit. In an on-line interview the late Ms. Windsor explains that her home state didn't have a Miss Utah, but she was a Miss Covered Wagon Days in 1939, which was about as close the Mormon State got to such a thing. In any event Windsor's combination of authority and raven-haired beauty suits her edged character well. Friedkin describes McGraw as `the most hard-boiled of the tough guys.' With a face that looked like it was chiseled from a solid block of sandstone, augmented with a deep, growling snarl of a voice that sounded as if it had been steeped in whiskey and filtered through barbed wire - supplemented by the three packs (at least) of cigarettes McGraw smokes in this 71 minute movie- you'd be hard pressed to argue with Friedkin's assessment. In the interview Windsor remembers McGraw as a sweet and gentle man. Still, even though other b-actors, Lawrence Tierney and Tom Neal, for instance, had real life assault and murder convictions, of the bunch McGraw is the one you least want tailing you when the pavement turns slick and the shadows grow long.
A great cast, and everyone in THE NARROW MARGIN is very good to excellent, can be betrayed by a weak script and/or poor direction. Fortunately, the story is a natural and the direction is top of the line. A valuable witness has to travel from Chicago to Los Angeles on a train infested with ruthless bad guys who'll do just about anything to eliminate her (if they can find her.) Almost all of the movie takes place on the train during its long journey, a hermetic and claustrophobic space with few places to run and fewer yet to hide. The dialogue crackles and Fleischer's direction, in a word, is propulsive. I've cribbed from Friedkin's commentary track a couple of times already. It's not necessarily the best c-track I've ever heard, but it may be the one I'm most in tune with. I had to dust the scales off my eyelids when he noted `they could make movies in seventy-minutes back then because the characters didn't spend all their time analyzing their actions.' Which, of course, is true. When you say a movie like THE NARROW MARGIN is fast paced you're talking about the overall pacing, not the jittery MTV editing style. Movies like TNM build tension through action, not reflection. Friedkin also points out the missing piece that keeps the `very good' TNM from being a classic. I hadn't thought about it, but after he mentioned it I knew he was right. It involves a major plot point, so rather than telling you I'll just recommend the commentary track (after, of course, you've watched the film the first time without commentary.)
Archive interview audio of TNM's director Richard Fleischer is also heard on the c-track. As always, it's a treat to hear the director of old movies speak about them. What he doesn't address are two of the incredible (now) though common (then) facts about THE NARROW MARGIN. Namely that it was made on a $90,000 budget (still under $1 million in today's dollars after adjusting for inflation) and that the picture was shot in either 14 or 21 days (accounts vary.) If Friedkin is right and TNM is not a classic, it's still a wonderful crime thriller, and one that I strongly recommend.