Genre: Film Noir Running Time: 1 hr. 11 min.
Release Date: May 4th, 1952 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Richard Fleischer Actors: Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White, Gordon Gebert, Queenie Leonard, David Clarke, Peter Virgo, Don Beddoe, Paul Maxey
etective Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and his partner Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) arrive in Chicago on the 49er from Los Angeles, anxious to pick up a key witness: Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor), the paranoid wife of a mob boss. Assigned by the District Attorney to bring her back safely for some potent grand jury testimony on a graft probe, Brown and Forbes are in over their heads as they’re immediately targeted by assassins intent on shutting up the dish. When Gus is gunned down, Walter is forced to keep moving and changing plans, hoping to stall an inevitable confrontation with a killer in a fur coat.
For the first distraction, Neall and Brown split up and then rendezvous aboard the train, while additional hitmen tail the detective, unsure of what the target dame looks like. But the copper is slick and the gangster moll isn’t too dim herself, lending to a tension-filled pursuit and showdown across and through the claustrophobic Pullman. From break-ins to bribery to murder, the fleeing duo will have to improvise as much as the goons chasing after them if they hope to disembark in one piece.
“It’s a rotten detail. I didn’t like it from the start.” The dialogue is deliciously hardboiled, even if commonplace for this genre, keeping sharp lines flowing regularly from both the thugs and the protectors. Amusingly, the bad guys are bad and the good guys aren’t much better, becoming nearly indistinguishable at times as the suspense builds and the stakes increase. Equally steeled are the bouts of sexualized banter (perpetually traded barbs), as if Brown and Neall hope to romance one another in spite of unconcealed distaste.
The humorous grittiness isn’t limited to the conversations alone. There’s a particularly hysterical sequence in which Brown must squeeze past a fat man in a tiny hallway, while the coincidences of a spare compartment, a loudmouthed child, and an interested, blue-eyed, single mother (Jacqueline White) – for the sake of a love triangle and a clever ploy of mistaken identities – also pop up. The train itself is also a notable component, designating a formidable environment for villainous activities and very few places to hide. And the tricky camerawork makes admirable use of it. “This train’s heading straight for the cemetery!”
McGraw is sensational as an emotionless, streetwise, ultra tough cop full of moral dilemmas, while Windsor never deviates from her cold-blooded, self-absorbed attitude. But despite an exceptional cast, a grand premise, and a short runtime, “Narrow Margin” can’t quite manage to be nonstop thrilling. Surprisingly, there are a few lulls, and the closing moments lack the usual zest seen in these edgier films noir, even though the screenplay holds more than one brilliant twist and the atmosphere is excellently electrifying.
– Mike Massie