The Narrow Margin a Wonderful Overlooked Noir Classic




Directed by Richard Fleischer

RKO Pictures, 71 minutes, not-rated.

★★★★ ½




Film noir had peaked in popularity by the time The Narrow Margin appeared in 1952. Very few film fans now recognize names such as Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, or Jacqueline White and even in their day they were considered second-tier actors. Too bad on all fronts, as The Narrow Margin ranks among the best of forgotten film noir classics.


As is generally the case, the narrative arc seems simple, though you can rest assured that there are plenty of twists. LAPD Detective Sergeant Walter Brown (McGraw) and his partner Sergeant Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) have been sent to Chicago to provide bodyguard duty for Mrs. Frankie Neal (Windsor), the widow of a mobster who has turned state’s evidence. She has a payoff list found among her dead husband’s effects whose contents would cripple a major crime syndicate. As a cab drops off Brown and Forbes in front of the safe house, we hear a much-quoted line that’s vintage noir. When Brown ponders what Mrs. Neal is like, Forbes predicts, “She’s the sixty-cent special. Cheap. Flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy.”


Things go wrong from the start. Forbes is murdered as the trio descends a dark stairwell and, though Brown wounds him, the assassin flees. It’s 1952, so the journey from Chicago back to California is by train, not an airplane. Brown faces the daunting task of single-handedly keeping Neal safe. His heart isn’t into it, as his dead partner left behind a wife and three kids, and Neal is a major piece of disagreeable work. She’s acid-tongued, demanding, and has the charm of an enraged hornet. Brown has a double compartment and he shoves Neal into one of them and tells her to lock the door and keep quiet. As if that will happen.


Brown cases the cars, identifies a known hoodlum, and fingers several others he suspects are hoods, including the nosy and rotund Sam Jennings (Paul Maxey). Brown also can’t help noticing an attractive blond named Ann Sinclair (White) who is traveling with her young son Tommy and a nanny. Focus Walter! It takes several days to make such a trip in 1952, and are were several stops along the way, any one of which raises the odds that more gun thugs will come aboard. He’s even openly approached by mobster Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco), who’d rather settle matters amicably; he offers Brown a $30,000 bribe to reveal where he has stashed Neal. It’s tempting when your client is contemptible.


Will Neal or Brown make it to LA? The Narrow Margin is a taut 71 minutes, most of which takes place inside a train. Credit goes to the direction of Richard Fleischer for keeping tension levels so high that the train’s cramped compartments, berths, and corridors never make the film seem claustrophobic. To be sure, there are MacGuffins and red herrings throughout Earl Felton’s screenplay. In retrospect, there are two major logic errors in the film but as Alfred Hitchcock observed, if directors do their jobs well, viewers won’t notice. Fleischer did his job very well.


Rob Weir


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