This week in the Best of Film Noir, we’re examining a movie that I just watched for the first time, The Narrow Margin. And quite frankly, I was blown away by this movie. Starring Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, and Jacqueline White, The Narrow Margin is a low-budget thrill ride that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It also mentions a place close to my heart (read on) and it’s got a wonderful twist to it. Sure, it’s not a perfect flick, there are some plot holes, but the pace doesn’t let you linger on those…
The Best of Film Noir – A Tight Plot
The Narrow Margin is about a widowed mobster’s wife who decides she is going to testify against the mob. She must be protected on her journey from Chicago to L.A., so two L.A. cops are sent to Chicago to escort her safely back to L.A. One of the things I loved about The Narrow Margin is that it’s a tight story, told almost exclusively in the narrow confines of a train. We don’t have the rich landscapes we see in so many other film noir, the places where the story moves and breaths. And yet the film is so well written and directed that we are on the edge of our seats throughout.
The Best of Film Noir – Ridding Ourselves of Stereotypes
The Narrow Margin is one of a handful of film noir that doesn’t really have a noir hero or a
classic femme fatale. Charles McGraw plays Detective Brown, and he’s hard-nosed and tough, but he doesn’t ever fall for who we think of as the femme fatale. He’s a good guy trying to do the right thing.
Marie Windsor is Mrs. Frankie Neall. Yes, she sexy, and she’s got a sharp tongue. She’s described as:
a dish…a 60 cent special. Cheap, flashy and strictly poison under the gravy.
To me, she’s just not a femme fatale like we’ve seen in other film noir. But Windsor still plays her part beautifully; on the one hand you want to hate her, and yet you also feel for her plight.
The Best of Film Noir – Great Direction and Script
Director Richard Fleischer, a former newsreel editor, came into his own with The Narrow Margin. The film received such high critical praise that Fleischer went on to direct such classics as 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Fleischer broke film boundaries with the use of handheld cameras (see below), and his use of low camera angles and tight shots heightened the tension of the film. A fight scene in James Bond’s From Russia With Love seems to pay homage to one in The Narrow Margin. Credit a well-written script that creates such an awesome punch.
The Best of Film Noir – Small Budget, Big Success
Filmed on a budget of $188,000, The Narrow Margin went on to make RKO quite a bit of money. Not only that, Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard’s script was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. To me, this is like the indie author who writes, produces (think creating the ebook and cover design) and markets a book, and the book goes on to smash sales records. Go, little guy!
The Best of Film Noir – My Personal Connections to The Narrow Margin
As I watched The Narrow Margin, I heard the characters talk about their next stop in La Junta. La Junta? Did I hear that right? For those of you who aren’t familiar with southeast Colorado, La Junta is a small town on Highway 50, about halfway between Pueblo and the Kansas border. About 18 miles east of La Junta is the tiny town of Las Animas, where my dad grew up. For years, I’ve traveled from Denver to Las Animas, and I’ve spent many a day poking around La Junta. Not only have I seen the train station referenced in The Narrow Margin, our family has a sad sort of connection to the train station. One day, when I was a teenager, my sister and I were in La Junta with my grandmother. As we drove past the train station, my grandmother pointed to the station and said, That’s the last time I saw George. George was her youngest son. A month after my grandmother saw him off at the train station in La Junta (early 1967), George disappeared off the North Vietnamese coast. He’s never been seen or heard from again, and is officially listed as MIA.
On a happier note, a bit of trivia about the towns on Highway 50 between Pueblo and La Junta: they are in alphabetical order (Fowler, Manzanola, Rocky Ford, Swink).
The Best of Film Noir – Trivia and Goofs
The Narrow Margin was shot in 13 days and the only part actually filmed on board a train was a few seconds of the arrival in Los Angeles.
In preference to removing various walls from the sets, director Richard Fleischer decided to make extensive use of a handheld camera that could be brought into rooms; this was one of the first films to do so. To save money the train sets were rigidly fixed to the floor, and the camera was moved to simulate the train rocking.
Other than a few brief moments in which a phonograph is playing, there is no music in the soundtrack.
When the character of nine-year old Tommy Sinclair (Gordon Gebert) first appears, his traveling nurse clearly calls him Tony. For the rest of the film he’s called Tommy, the character’s official name.
Thanks to IMDb for those!
So grab your soda and treats, get comfy, and settle in for a great film noir treat!
There is little doubt that Renée Pawlish is a promising new voice to the comic murder/mystery genre. Quite noticeable…is Pawlish’s adept development of the plot coupled with her ability to contrive clear, concise and playful prose with almost perfect pacing.
Norman Goldman, Bookpleasures Publisher and Editor
Top Amazon Reviewer