The Narrow Margin

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The Narrow Margin
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRichard Fleischer
Screenplay byEarl Felton
Story byMartin Goldsmith
Jack Leonard
Produced byStanley Rubin
StarringCharles McGraw
Marie Windsor
Jacqueline White
CinematographyGeorge E. Diskant
Edited byRobert Swink
Music byUncredited stock music composers:
Gene Rose
Leith Stevens
Dave Torbett
Roy Webb
Distributed byRKO Pictures
Release date
  • May 2, 1952 (1952-05-02) (US)[1]
Running time
71 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Narrow Margin is a 1952 American film noir starring Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor. Directed by Richard Fleischer, the RKO picture was written by Earl Felton, based on an unpublished story written by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard. The screenplay by Earl Felton was nominated for an Academy Award.[4]

A police detective plays a deadly game of cat-and-mouse aboard a train with mob assassins out to stop a slain gangster's widow before she can testify before a grand jury.


Detective Sergeant Walter Brown of the LAPD and his partner, Sergeant Gus Forbes, are assigned to protect Frankie Neall, a mob boss's widow, as she rides a train from Chicago to Los Angeles to testify before a grand jury. She also carries a payoff list that belonged to her murdered husband. The mob's hitmen do not know what she looks like.

As the detectives and Mrs. Neall leave her apartment, they are waylaid by Densel, a mob assassin. Forbes is shot to death, and Densel, wounded by Brown, escapes. At the train station, Brown discovers that he has been followed by gangster Joseph Kemp. Each man knows the other is a mortal enemy. With the help of a conductor, Kemp comes into Brown's room under the pretense that he is looking for lost luggage.

Kemp tries to open the door to the next compartment, where Mrs. Neall hides, but Brown tells the conductor that the room is empty, and Kemp and the conductor leave. Brown knows that Kemp will come back to her room, so he hides Neall in the ladies room with all of her luggage, and goes to the dining car so Kemp will know that the room is unguarded. Kemp goes back and searches both rooms, finding nothing. Kemp later returns to the dining car, which Brown leaves to escort Neall back to her room. Later, mobster Vincent Yost meets Brown and unsuccessfully tries to bribe him into pointing out Neall and abandoning her, appealing to both his greed and his fear (Brown tells Yost he is under arrest for bribery but Brown is out of his jurisdiction so he has no arresting authority). He even suggests that Brown could use the bribe to help the family of his murdered partner, Gus Forbes.

By chance, Brown makes friends with passenger Ann Sinclair and her young son Tommy. When Kemp spots Brown with her, he mistakes Ann for Neall. After Brown beats him up in a fight and questions him, the policeman learns of the mistake. Brown again attempts an arrest without arresting authority. But this time, he turns Kemp over to railroad agent Sam Jennings and hurries to warn Ann. Densel, however, has boarded the train during a stop at La Junta, Colorado, and waylays Jennings, freeing Kemp.

Brown tries to explain to Ann that mobsters on the train plan to kill her, mistakenly believing she is Neall. However, she stuns him by revealing that she is the real Neall. The woman he has been protecting is an undercover policewoman, a decoy, and Brown was not told of either woman's true identity in case he might be corrupt. Ann had earlier mailed the payoff list to the Los Angeles District Attorney. Meanwhile, Densel and Kemp search for the payoff list and discover the fake Neall in her compartment; the music from her record player gives her away. They break into her room, and Densel shoots her dead as she tries to sneak her gun out of her purse. Then Kemp discovers a badge and police identification, identifying her as Chicago policewoman Sarah Meggs, hidden within her record player.

Densel, deducing the truth, goes for Ann. Her door is locked, but he knocks on the next door. Tommy opens and Densel enters, grabbing him. Densel knocks on the interior door to Ann's room and threatens to kill Tommy if she does not open. She complies, and he pushes Tommy away. Densel then locks himself in with Ann and demands the payoff list. Brown and Jennings later arrive. Densel is trapped but has Ann as hostage. Brown uses the reflection from the window of a train on the next track to see into Ann's compartment, and he shoots Densel through the door without endangering her. Brown then enters the compartment and finishes Densel off with more shots. Kemp jumps off the train and heads for accomplices in a car nearby, but they are all quickly arrested. The train arrives in Los Angeles, and Brown escorts Ann from the station toward the court house. She chooses to walk with Brown the two blocks straight to testify rather than sneak out under cover.



The film was based on a story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard titled Target, whose rights were acquired by RKO in 1950.[5]Target was the film's working title.[1]

The film's train followed a similar route to that of the real-life Super Chief. However, exterior shots vary throughout the film and rely on stock footage, rather than show the actual model. Los Angeles' Union Station also stands in for Chicago's Dearborn Station.[6] Scenes aboard the train were shot on a soundstage at RKO Studios, using rear projection for background landscapes.[7][8] The film was shot in just 13 days, and made extensive use of a handheld camera to film within the confined sets without having to remove their walls, an innovative practice at the time.[9] While a few instances of diegetic music can be heard in the movie, it is also notable for the absence of a traditional score.[8]

According to Richard Fleischer, RKO owner Howard Hughes was so taken with the film he considered reshooting most of it with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell to release it as an A picture.[3] While extensive reshoots did not happen, William Cameron Menzies did film a few additional scenes.[10] The Narrow Margin's release was held up for two years after its completion. Reasons given for the delay have varied from Hughes' indecision to coaxing the in-demand Fleischer into doing more work for the mogul.[10][11] Hughes did assign Fleischer to reshoot sections of the Mitchum–Russell film, His Kind of Woman, with the screenwriter of Margin, Earl Felton, providing uncredited rewrites for the latter picture.[3]


Critical response[edit]

The Narrow Margin is considered by critics and film historians to be a classic example of film noir. Well received at the time of its release, the production was made as a model B movie. In 1952, critic Howard Thompson of The New York Times gave high marks to the low-budget film:

Using a small cast of comparative unknowns, headed by Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor and Jacqueline White, this inexpensive Stanley Rubin production for R.K.O. is almost a model of electric tension that, at least technically, nudges some of the screen's thriller milestones. Crisply performed and written and directed by Earl Felton and Richard Fleischer with tingling economy, this unpretentious offering should glue anyone to the edge of his seat and prove, once and for all, that a little can be made to count for a lot.[12]

Later, in 2005, film critic Dennis Schwartz said, "A breathtakingly suspenseful low-budget crime thriller that is flawlessly directed ... The fast-paced pulpish taut story is filled with tense incidents and a well-executed twist."[4]

The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 100% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 10 reviews.[13]

Noir analysis[edit]

Film critic Blake Lucas makes the case that The Narrow Margin reflects the "noir view" of an unstable and deceiving moral reality.[clarification needed][14]

Awards and honors[edit]


The film was remade as Narrow Margin with Anne Archer and Gene Hackman in 1990. It was directed by Peter Hyams. Hackman's performance was praised, but the later version is generally considered a lesser work compared to the original movie.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b "Catalog - The Narrow Margin". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved May 31, 2014.
  2. ^ Jewell, Richard; Harbin, Vernon (1982). The RKO Story. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House. p. 268. ISBN 9780517546567.
  3. ^ a b c Fleischer, Richard (1993). Just Tell Me When to Cry: A Memoir. Carroll and Graf. p. 45. ISBN 9780881849448.
  4. ^ a b Schwartz, Dennis (January 22, 2005). "This sleeper may very well be the best B-film ever made". Ozus' World Movie Reviews. Retrieved November 23, 2009.
  5. ^ Brady, Thomas F. (February 3, 1950). "Metro Acquires Buckner's Story". The New York Times. p. 29. Retrieved June 22, 2018.
  6. ^ McCann, Gary G. (April 30, 2015). "Chicago to LA by train in the early 'fifties–via the film Narrow Margin". Retrieved 31 December 2022.
  7. ^ "John Sayles on The Narrow Margin". Trailers From Hell. November 13, 2021. Retrieved 31 December 2022.
  8. ^ a b Erickson, Glenn (June 24, 2005). "DVD Savant Review: The Narrow Margin". Retrieved 31 December 2022.
  9. ^ "The Narrow Margin: Trivia". Retrieved 31 December 2022.
  10. ^ a b Rode, Alan K. (Fall 2004). "Credit Where Due" (PDF). Noir City. Alameda: Film Noir Foundation. p. 47.
  11. ^ Erickson, Glenn (June 3, 2016). "The Whip Hand". Trailers From Hell. Retrieved 31 December 2022.
  12. ^ H. H. T. (May 5, 1952). "Trans-Lux 60th Street Presents a Suspense Melodrama, 'The Narrow Margin'; At the Trans-Lux 60th St". The New York Times. Retrieved January 22, 2008.
  13. ^ The Narrow Margin at Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved May 31, 2020.
  14. ^ Silver, Alain; Ward, Elizabeth, eds. (1992). Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (3rd rev. and expanded ed.). Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press. p. 198. ISBN 0-87951-479-5.

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