The Narrow Margin
|The Narrow Margin|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Richard Fleischer|
|Produced by||Stanley Rubin|
|Screenplay by||Earl Felton|
Uncredited stock music composers:|
|Cinematography||George E. Diskant|
|Edited by||Robert Swink|
|Distributed by||RKO Pictures|
The Narrow Margin is a 1952 American film noir directed by Richard Fleischer and written by Earl Felton, based on an unpublished story written by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard.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.
The picture stars Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor and Jacqueline White. It was released by RKO Radio Pictures. 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 (Charles McGraw) of the Los Angeles Police Department and his partner are assigned to protect a mob boss's widow, Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor), as she rides a train from Chicago to Los Angeles to testify before a grand jury. She is also carrying a payoff list that belonged to her murdered husband. On the way to pick her up, Brown bets his partner and friend, Sergeant Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe), what she will be like: "She's the sixty-cent special. Cheap. Flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy."
As the detectives and Mrs. Neall leave her apartment, they are waylaid by a mob assassin named Densel (Peter Virgo). Forbes is shot to death, but Densel, although wounded by Brown, escapes. At the train station, Brown discovers that he has been followed by gangsters Joseph Kemp (David Clarke) and Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco). The latter meets him on the train and unsuccessfully tries to bribe him.
Brown's relationship with Mrs. Neall is caustic. She is a cynical and flashy brunette, who flirts with him while expressing doubt about his integrity and commitment to protecting her. By chance Brown makes friends with an attractive blonde train passenger he meets, Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White), and her too-observant young son Tommy (Gordon Gebbert). When Kemp spots Brown with her, he mistakes Sinclair for his target. After Brown beats him up in a fight and questions him, the policeman learns of the mistake. He turns Kemp over to railroad agent Sam Jennings (Paul Maxey) and hurries to warn Ann. Densel, however, has boarded the train during a brief stop at La Junta, Colorado, and waylays Jennings, freeing Kemp.
When Brown tries to warn Ann that she is in danger, she reveals that she is the real Mrs. Neall. The other woman is an undercover policewoman, and Brown was not told in case he might be corrupt. Densel and Kemp enter Brown's compartment to search for the list and discover the fake Mrs. Neall in the next compartment. 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 PD policewoman Sarah Meggs, hidden within her record player.
Densel, deducing the truth, goes for Ann. He is cornered in the compartment with her, with Brown outside. Brown uses the reflection from the window of a train on the next track to shoot Densel through the door without endangering Ann, then enters the compartment and finishes him off in a shootout. Kemp jumps off the stopped train, but is quickly arrested. Brown escorts Ann from the Los Angeles train station to the grand jury.
- Charles McGraw as Det. Sgt. Walter Brown
- Marie Windsor as Mrs. Frankie Neall
- Jacqueline White as Ann Sinclair
- Peter Virgo as Densel
- Gordon Gebert as Tommy Sinclair
- Queenie Leonard as Mrs. Troll
- David Clarke as Joseph Kemp
- Don Beddoe as Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes
- Paul Maxey as Sam Jennings
The film was based on a story by Martin Goldmsith and Jack Leonard called "Target". RKO bought it in 1950.
The film does not have a music score in the usual meaning of the term: the director substituted actual train sounds in places where music would ordinarily be heard for dramatic effect.
However, the film does have music, which is stock music "played" on a passenger's (Marie Windsor's) record player in her compartment.
Richard Fleischer says that RKO's owner, Howard Hughes, was so taken with the film he considered remaking it with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. He eventually decided against it but he 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. The Narrow Margin's release was held up for two years after its completion.
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.
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."
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 84% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 8 reviews.
Awards and honors
- Academy Award for Best Screenplay, Earl Felton, 1953.
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.
- "Catalog - The Narrow Margin". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved May 31, 2014.
- Jewell, Richard; Harbin, Vernon (1982). The RKO Story. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House. p. 268. ISBN 9780517546567.
- Fleischer, Richard (1993). Just Tell Me When to Cry: A Memoir. Carroll and Graf. p. 45. ISBN 9780881849448.
- 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.
- Brady, Thomas F. (February 3, 1950). "METRO ACQUIRES BUCKNER'S STORY". The New York Times. p. 29. Retrieved June 22, 2018.
- 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.
- The Narrow Margin at Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved February 25, 2011.
- Silver, Alain; Ward, Elizabeth, eds. (1992). Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (3. ed., rev. and expanded ed. ed.). Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press. p. 198. ISBN 0-87951-479-5.