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. Photographed in deep rich black shadowy light, most of the film taking place on a cross country train. The confined space results in a claustrophobic tense ride filled with twists and turns that do not let up for a second.
Two Los Angeles 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. They are escorting the widowed wife back to the City of Angels to testify before a grand jury. Neal is a hard boiled, acid tongued dame. At one point she is described as the “poison under the gravy.” The two cops expect a rough trip back because the mob boys do not want Mrs. Neal to complete her trip. The lawman’s expectations are quickly proven right. Before they even get out of Neal’s low rent apartment building, they are ambushed and Forbes is shot dead. Brown manages to get his witness onto the train. The mob boys are also on board. While they don’t know what Mrs. Neal looks like, they know she’s on the train. Brown’s plan is to keep her hidden away in a compartment while he attempts to smoke out the killers.
Running a rapid 71 minutes, the film’s pace is as hi-speed as the rails they are riding. We are back in time when most people still 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, the unofficial king of B film noir. Whether portraying a cop or a criminal, his gravel like voice and square jaw looks have graced many film noirs including T-Men, The Threat, The Killers, Armored Car Robbery and Border Incident 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, she was known as the “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 Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy and Swamp Women to The City That Never Sleeps, Force of Evil, and most importantly, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. Windsor’s 5’9” slinky frame, her coldhearted, seen everything looks make her a perfect femme fatale, and a superb counterpoint to McGraw’s rugged honest cop. Watching and listening to these two spar for most of the film is a lesson in sharply written dialogue and performances that has been 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 young 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 are taken alive.
The tightly written screenplay is courtesy of Earl Felton (Armored Car Robbery, The Rawhide Years), based on a story by Martin Goldsmith. Goldsmith was also responsible for another low budget work; Edgar Ulmer’s poverty row, down and dirty minor masterpiece, 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; superbly 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 and 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 eventually 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 may sound. The name Disney, being dad Max Fleischer’s biggest rival in animation, was verboten in the Fleischer household. Richard actually asked his father’s permission before accepting the assignment.
The director’s career, while financially successful, was artistically like a yo-yo. After hitting the financial big time with Disney he began an erratic career with good films like Compulsion, 10 Rillington Place and The Boston Strangler. In between there were over bloated Hollywood epics like Doctor Doolittle and Tora, Tora, Tora and just plain bad films like Che! and The Don is Dead. In 1976, he made the still controversial Mandingo. None ever reach the tight, sharp high level of his earlier film noir works.
The Narrow Margin is pulp fiction at its best. A remake was made in 1990 with the always reliable Gene Hackman, along with Anne Archer as the witness. You’re better off sticking with the original.
This post is part of CMBA’S PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES: CLASSIC FILMS ON THE MOVE Blogathon. Below is a link to other fine articles in the blogathon. Additionally, check out the new e-book that available for free on Smashword and for .99 cent at Amazon.