johnlink ranks THE NARROW MARGIN (1952)

Despite my affinity for film noir, there is precious little of it littering these pages. THE NARROW MARGIN is another of the films I heard as being one of the classics of the genre, but I had never been exposed to it. Fortunately, thanks to the Oscar month on Turner Classic Movies, I happened upon it recently. So, here we go…


I watched THE NARROW MARGIN (1952) on 2.15.13. It was my first viewing of the film.

This was a small movie with a lot of people I was not overly familiar with. Charles McGraw ably plays the lead detective, Walter Brown. The femme fatale (adorned in black of course) is one Frankie Neal (Marie Windsor). The virginal woman in white is Ann Sinclair (played by the aptly named Jacqueline White). The villain who does most of the pursuing, Joseph Kemp, is played by David Clarke.

All of these folks have been in movies I’ve seen, but none of them are particularly recognizable to me. Yet, thanks to the tropes of film noir, it is easy to place each in their respective roles, like one might for a piece of commedia dell’arte. THE NARROW MARGIN is successful, in part, because it defies the expectations of a couple of these commonalities. To say which ones would be to ruin the film, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Det. Brown is different than some of the heroes of the 40s noir. His charge is to protect Mrs. Neal on a train ride to Los Angeles. He holds her in no regard, particular after the job causes the death of his partner. Unlike Sam Spade of THE MALTESE FALCON who merely goes through the motions of caring about his dead partner, Brown really does have trouble with the fact that his friend has died. He holds Mrs. Neal personally responsible (and himself of course, this is noir after all), and he isn’t afraid to let her know.

The movie takes place, mostly, on the train. A couple of guys are after Mrs. Neal because she is an informant. The guys who are after her range from rich investors to small time thugs. There are conductors and other passengers on board, who Brown never really trusts, though they prove to be varying levels of useful. Providing the antithesis of Mrs. Neal is Ann. She travels with her son and a caretaker. They become innocent bystanders in the crossfire of dirty looks and subtle cat-and-mouse games.

Nobody wants to play their hand. Brown goes a long time before telling anyone on board that he is a cop. The criminals can’t just open fire out in the open. Brown can’t stick anything to them at the start, so he can’t just arrest people (though he probably could detain them, but that would have ruined the plot). Only Brown knows where on board Mrs. Neal is hiding, so the bad guys can’t just off him either. The destination of the train is the ticking time bomb here, only the heroes are waiting for the trip to be over and the bad guys have to get things done before the train stops. It’s a smart piece of reversing the normal suspense line. Usually the good guys are in the rush to stop something. Here, the good guys are just trying to weather the storm until the train reaches its destination. Also, one real draw of this movie is the way we really don’t like Mrs. Neal, and we really like Brown. The movie plays those concepts so well, and really manipulates our perception. It’s solid writing which was nominated for an Academy Award.

There are some really great moments in this. One has two bad guys talking about how they don’t know what Mrs. Neal looks like as she subtly walks past them in the background. Another comes as Brown gets more and more annoyed with the woman he is charged with protecting and says “Mrs. Neal I would love to give you the same answer I gave that hood. But it would mean stepping on your face.” The film’s close-quarter fights are wonderfully realistic for the era, and the climactic confrontation (which takes place through a reflection) is wonderfully realized.

There are some really nice twists in this movie which I did not see coming. The action plows forward quickly in this 71 minute movie, and there is little time to waste. While this movie did not get received particularly well in theaters, it is one which is loved (a 7.7 IMDB rating, for example) greatly in retrospect. This is just a really solid entry in the film noir genre. The shadowing, the canted framing, the nighttime scenes… all of the staples of the genre are there. This isn’t a bad starter film for someone looking to see what it is all about.





~ by johnlink00 on February 15, 2013.

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