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Narrow Margin, the
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The Narrow Margin
This gem of a B-picture from RKO is the kind of trim, beautifully paced movie people have in mind when asking, "Why don't they make 'em like that anymore?" Two cops have to guard a gangster's widow against assassination as she rides the Golden West Limited sleeper train from Chicago to give evidence in L.A. Soon there's only one cop (gravel-voiced Charles McGraw, usually cast as a villain), and he's finding the sharp-tongued widow (Marie Windsor in excelsis) as obnoxious as she is endangered. Nothing goes quite as you'd expect in this exemplary train thriller, which rattles and rocks toward its destination without a music track or a wasted moment. The bad guys include a most distinctive, elegantly garbed hitman (Gordon Gebert); a soft-spoken, "Be reasonable, Sergeant" negotiator (the vulpine Peter Brocco); and possibly the fat man (Paul Maxey) who keeps blocking up the train corridor at just the wrong time. Detour writer Martin Goldsmith worked on the story, which was nominated for an Academy Award, and George E. Diskant's black-and-white cinematography is as sharp as the work he was doing for Nicholas Ray around the same time. Director Richard Fleischer went on to bigger things--but he never made a better movie. --Richard T. Jameson
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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.
Modest length - the movie clocks in at a spare 71 minutes, and all the fat has been trimmed. There is not one wasted moment, and the action will keep viewers rivited.
Brilliant black & white photography - all the moody shadows, claustrophobic camera angles and amazing lighting that epitomizes film noir are on hand here and used to great effect.
Snappy dialogue - some of the best hard-boiled dialogue I've heard ("I've met some hard cases before, lady, but you make 'em look like putty") ("What are you going to do? Shoot something for breakfast?"). The barbs come quick and steady, with menace and biting sarcasm.
Femme fatale - Mrs. Neil, the protected Mob witness is nasty, self-centered, selfish and mean. Detective Brown is almost no match for her sharp tongue.
In additon, there are twists and turns that will keep you guessing until the penultimate moment. This is one of those "old" movies that bear repeated viewings. Economy of direction, script and suspense that builds throughout make this film noir a classic.
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