Early in his feature film directing career Richard Fleischer made a series of exciting low budget film noirs, among them, The Clay Pigeon, Follow Me, Quietly, Armored Car Robbery and his masterpiece, The Narrow Margin. Filmed in deep rich black shadowy light, most of the film taking place on a train, the confined space resulting in a claustrophobic tense ride filled with twists and turns that do not let up for a second.
Two L.A. cops, Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Gus Forbes (Don Beddoes)are sent to Chicago to pick up Mrs. Frankie Neal (Marie Windsor), the wife of a slain mobster, and escort her back to the City of Angels to testify before a grand jury. Neal is an acid tongued dame, at one point described as the “poison under the gravy.” The two cops expect a rough trip back, they’re right, even before they get out of Neal’s low rent building, Forbes is shot dead. Brown manages to get his witness onto the train. The mob boys are also on board, they don’t know what she looks like but they know she’s on board. Brown keeps her hidden away in a compartment while he attempts to smoke out the killers.
Running a quick 71 minutes, the film’s pace is as hi-speed as the rails they are riding. We are back in time when most people traveled by train, it’s a world filled with sleeping berths, club cars, dining cars, porters and whistles shrieking in the dark of the night. Most of all, the film has the great Charles McGraw, unofficial king of B film noir. Whether portraying a cop or a criminal, his gravel like voice, square jaw looks have graced many film noirs including T-Men, The Threat, The Killers, Armored Car Robbery and Border Inciden,t among others. In his 80 plus film career McGraw also appeared in plenty of other films like Spartacus, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Birds and In Cold Blood. In real life McGraw was apparently just as rugged as he appeared on screen. Booze and brawls led to a sad insecure life and eventually a tragic death.
Here though, McGraw meets his match in Marie Windsor, a former Miss Utah, known as “Queen of the B’s,” for the countless low budget films she made in her career. Windsor’s off beat beauty graced a wide variety of films from The City That Never Sleeps, Force of Evil, and The Killing to Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy and Swamp Women. Windsor’s 5’9” slinky frame, coldhearted, seen everything looks make her a perfect femme fatale and a superb counterpoint to McGraw’s rugged honest copy. Watching and listening to these two spar for most of the film is a lesson in sharply written dialogue and performance that is rarely matched.
“Sister, I’ve known some pretty hard cases in my time; you make ‘em all look like putty. You’re not talking about a sack of gumdrops that’s gonna be smashed – you’re talking about a dame’s life!” Brown says referring to Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White), a woman traveling on the train with her son and a nanny who Brown attempts to trick the killers into thinking is Mrs. Neal.
Brown continues, “You may think it’s a funny idea for a woman with a kid to stop a bullet for you, only I’m not laughing!” Mrs. Neal fires back, “Where do you get off, being so superior? Why shouldn’t I take advantage of her – I want to live! If you had to step on someone to get something you wanted real bad, would you think twice about it?”
Neal’s tough talk and attitude disgust Brown. At one point, he tells her, “You make me sick to my stomach.” Neal’s explosive response, “Well, use your own sink!” These two battle without the gloves on, no prisoners taken alive.
The tightly written screenplay is courtesy of Earl Felton (Armored Car Robbery, The Rawhide Years) from a story by a by Martin Goldsmith who was also responsible for another low budget masterpiece, Edgar Ulmer’s poverty row, down and dirty, Detour. Like Detour, the storyline here does not always make sense but it’s a minor point, this all about characters and mood.
With this film, director Richard Fleischer reached his own personal summit in a long and erratic career. There are scenes here that are pure magic, brilliantly executed uses of camera angles and light. Fleischer and his cinematographer, George E. Diskant put together some extraordinary creative scenes; Brown and Forbes walking up the steps of Mrs. Neal shabby apartment building; the shooting of Forbes, soon after followed by Brown chasing the killer out the back alley. Throughout these scenes much of the lighting is stark with long black shadows falling just about everywhere. The train scenes are tight, claustrophobic, camera angles in close and high all adding to the tension.
As I mentioned earlier, Richard Fleischer’s career was erratic. The son of animation pioneer, Max Fleischer, creator of Betty Boop and Poppy, Richard proved himself to have the ability to make sharp, tightly filmed action suspense films. Disney Studios offered Richard the opportunity to direct the big budgeted 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a decision to accept was not as easy as it sounds. The name Disney, being Max Fleischer’s biggest rival in animation, was verboten in the Fleischer household. Richard actually asked his father’s permission before accepting the assignment.
Richard Fleischer’s career, while financially successful was artistically like a yo-yo. In the 1960′s he began to make over bloated Hollywood epics like Doctor Doolittle and Tora, Tora, Tora. He also attempted to “keep up” with the times making the horrid Che! with Omar Sharif as the Cuban revolutionary and Jack Palance as Castro. In between, there were some attempts at getting back to crime films, some good, 10 Rillington Place and The Boston Strangler, some mediocre, The Last Run and Mr. Majestyk and others dreadful (The Don is Dead). In 1976, he also made the still controversial Mandingo. None ever reach the tight, sharp high level of his earlier film noir works.
An okay remake was made in 1990 with the always reliable Gene Hackman, along with Anne Archer as the witness.