Thursday, May 5, 2011
The Narrow Margin - 1952
“The Narrow Margin” (1952) is a speeding bullet of a movie that stuns and entertains like no other B-noir. And that it happens almost entirely on a moving train is icing on the cake.
I do, however, wish it had a different title. When I was planning on using this film for our celebration of National Train Day, (Saturday, May 7th), I couldn’t remember the title of the movie. Took me forever to research enough scraps of cast names that I could recall to get it. If it had been called “That Train Movie with the Gangster’s Moll and the Gravelly-Voiced Guy Running from the Mobster with the Fur on His Coat Collar” I would have had no trouble locating this at all.
No sooner do we understand the gravity of the situation, when the senior detective, played by Don Beddoe, is shot dead, taking the bullet intended for the gangster’s moll. The other detective (with the gravelly voice) is played by Charles McGraw. Losing Beddoe is almost like losing his own father. There’s a nice bit where, cradling Beddoe in his arms, he brushes off Beddoe’s lapel that had cigar ash fall on it, a reprise of his similar protective flick of ash off Beddoe’s lapel when they talked in the cab ride earlier.
Uh-oh, the gangsters mistakenly think Miss White is the moll they want to kill. McGraw realizes this, and as if the pressure wasn’t bad enough, now he must protect two women, one of whom does not even know her life in is danger.
That’s all you’re going to get from me on the plot. It has so many twists and turns, and is so fast paced, you’d need a scorecard to follow it. A few surprises occur that will be ruined if I say anything else. So, just a few observations of how the train in this movie IS the movie.
We start with the opening credits, a powerful locomotive zooms at us in the night, the title splashes in our faces, and we hear the clanging and train whistle. There is no musical score to this movie. The soundtrack is all train noises. At one point, the gangster’s moll file her nails with an emery board, in an extreme close-up. It mimics the rhythmic sound of the train as we dissolve to a close-up of the trains wheels. The train is alive.
There is the train, first and foremost, a world unto itself that flies by cities and towns, stops at a few of them, but never stays for long. There is also the inherent sociability of train travel, so different than with planes. We are seated in dining cars and lounge cars with strangers, and introductions naturally follow, conversations begin, and we enter other people’s lives. The rolling village is self contained, but you can get on and off whenever you feel like it.
This represents another conundrum for our gravelly-voiced McGraw. What bad guys are getting on the train where, and who are escaping by getting off?
At one point, one of the mob henchman and McGraw duke it out in the men’s room. We have several minutes of no dialogue, just shoving each other’s mugs into sinks, punching, and at one point McGraw kicks right towards the camera and we get the bottom of his gumshoe in our faces.
“Holiday Affair” from our post here), has seen McGraw’s gun and takes him for a train robber. If McGraw thinks the mobsters are tenacious, they’ve got nothing on this little boy, who will not leave him alone.
This is a movie to be experienced, not just watched. It was filmed in the last days of what we might think of as the glamorous era of train travel. “Union Pacific”, which we covered on yesterday’s post, showed us the beginnings, rough and hard, yet without the bleakness of this modern film noir.
Have a look here for more on National Train Day. Don’t let train travel, which is the most economic and eco-friendly way to travel, be left to old movies. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, domestic travel by train is 20% more efficient than air travel and 28% more efficient than travel by car on a per-passenger-mile basis. Train travel may seem nostalgic, but it can also be our future.
Book your next trip by train. I will, too. It’s the only way to fly.
See you in the dining car.