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.

The premise of the film is simple. A pair of detectives in Chicago are assigned to escort a gangster’s moll to appear as a witness in court in Los Angeles. They take the train across the country. Bad guys are after her to shut her up.  It's a race for their lives, a game of terminal (mind your head on the pun) hide and seek.

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.

Torn up, and furious at the mouthy moll, played terrifically by Marie Windsor, McGraw has his work cut out for him now that he has to take this she-devil on to Los Angeles by himself. The bad guys do not know what she looks like because the police have been protecting her. They do know what McGraw looks like though, so they assume if they follow him on board the train, he will lead them to her.

A bit of a complication occurs when McGraw is seen conversing with another lady passenger, played by Jacqueline White. Love that first name. Has a ring to it.

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.

Richard Fleischer, son of the noted animator Max Fleischer, who gave us Popeye and Betty Boop, directs this taut film. His creativity is delightful. In another scene, a body falls after being shot and inadvertently brushes against a record player, thereby turning it on to blast a bluesy requiem. The movie said to have been shot in 13 days, and you can believe it because the entire movie is constant motion.

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?

Mr. McGraw is seen constantly running down the corridors of the train cars, a lot of cat-and-mouse deception with the bad guys. They try to search his compartment. He sneaks Miss Windsor out at one point to the ladies’ room, then hustles her back. She bolts down the corridor hugging her suitcase, dressed in a black negligee. Watching them running on the swaying train through narrow corridors is one of the most entertaining parts of this movie.

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.

A little boy on board, played by Gordon Gebert (you’ll remember him as the Janet Leigh’s son in “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.

Several peeks back into the compartment where Marie Windsor fumes, still in her black negligee, and waits for food. Her ugly attitude makes us hate her almost as much as McGraw does, or would if her snappy repartee weren’t so entertaining. At one point, McGraw tells her, “You make me sick to my stomach!” She fires back, “Well, use your own sink.”

They are either the worse enemies in the world, or they are like an old married couple. Their chemistry with each other is terrific.

Hide and seek continues, roaring through the West like destiny unleashed. A very large gentleman, who keeps bumping into McGraw and therefore, because of his girth in the narrow corridor, provides comic bits, is suddenly turned into a suspicious character when he innocently (or knowingly?) answers McGraw’s question of when they are to pull into the next scheduled stop.

The fat guy, played by Paul Maxey (who in credits in other movies is actually billed as the fat guy or the heavy gent), answers him politely, but suddenly, we have a flash of passing lights splashing across his serious expression and a startling shriek of train whistle. He holds the position, like a tableau, for several startling seconds. It’s as if the train is trying to tell us something about this guy.

Another treat about this movie is the many close-ups, probably because we are in such small quarters. We also get a lot of shots done through reflections in windows and mirrors, and the final climax features this device.

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.

Still, even with a gash in his head and the threat of murder around every narrow corner, a mouthy dame back in the compartment, and a small boy attacking him in the sleeper car, Charles McGraw can make this train trip seem snazzy and elegant.

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.

9 comments:

Caftan Woman said...

Yesterday I took 76 minutes to re-watch “That Train Movie with the Gangster’s Moll and the Gravelly-Voiced Guy Running from the Mobster with the Fur on His Coat Collar” and was so caught up in the atmosphere, the tension and Fleischer's masterful direction that I didn't even realize there was no score. A sure sign of success in achieving an artistic goal.

Your witty examination of the picture should pique the interest of those who have yet to cross tracks with this movie.

I have to plan a trip just so I can take a train.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Seriously, don't you think "The Narrow Margin" is a crappy title?

“That Train Movie with the Gangster’s Moll and the Gravelly-Voiced Guy Running from the Mobster with the Fur on His Coat Collar” is better, it says what it means. Obtuse people like me don't like to play guessing games. Just give me a title that tells me what I'm watching.

I'll tell you one train trip I'd love to take, Caftan Woman, and that's Canada's own Rocky Mountaineer out through Banff to Vancouver.

I actually am planning a train trip, but I'll discuss that at another time.

Yvette said...

I like that old stone-faced, gravelly-voiced Charles McGraw. (I always want to say Tug McGraw, the old Mets player from years ago. Ha!)

Jacqueline, YOU'RE BEING TAGGED BY ME. Don't know how to do the link back in comments, so just hit my name and go back to my blog for the questions you MUST answer as the Taggee. :)

msmariah said...

Very good review. I love these old movies set on trains.

Radio Flyer Big Flyer said...

Nice. Love the old music playing in the backgroung. I look forward to reading some of your movies on older movies.

The Lady Eve said...

I became a fan of "The Narrow Margin" last year. I'd reviewed Warners' Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 5 and one of my favorites in the set was Fleischer's "Armored Car Robbery" ('50) with Charles McGraw, Wm. Talman, Steve Brodie and other B-noir stalwarts. I tracked down "The Narrow Margin" not long after. Fleischer was a real master at creating a taut, danger-fraught atmosphere and moving at top speed. And McGraw...not sure why he wasn't bigger, he had both presence and talent.

I would be thrilled if train travel became the wave of the future. Which way to the club car?

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Lady Eve, I've got to track down "Armored Car Robbery". I've never seen it, and I've become a fan of Fleischer and Charles McGraw. I agree, his screen presence and talent should have made him more well known and in demand.

Club car's two cars past the sleeper. Watch out for the pesky little kid.

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

I love train movies and once compiled a list of over 70 of them! NARROW MARGIN is a fine train flick, a streamlined mystery that makes the most of its confined setting (once everyone gets on board). The 1990 remake isn't bad either.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

70 train films! I have my work cut out for me. Thanks.