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The Narrow Margin (1952)

by on 2012/03/03

“This train’s headed straight for the cemetery, but there’s another one coming along: the gravy train. Let’s get on it.”

* * *

As I begin this write-up, I am struck by the lack of notes I took in my screening. I rarely work from memory, so I jot thoughts down as I watch. Clearly 1952‘s Narrow Margin was either inescapably riveting or unremarkable.

From all I’ve read about this piece, I expected greater things. Well, at least I got a solid B-level noir. Its claim to fame is a novel location, set mostly on a train and, while I hadn’t seen it before, the movie felt familiar. My reaction probably owes something to its similar followers, especially Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and the James Bond film From Russia with Love.

Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) is an officer tasked with cross-country guard duty. He’s escorting a woman (Marie Windsor) with ties to the mob from Chicago to Los Angeles. He dreads the assignment, and she does little to endear herself to him. Regardless, he is obligated to keep her safe, despite several complications, including bribe attempts, violence, and innocents caught in the crossfire.

It’s a promising premise, with a few nice touches. I enjoyed the evolution of Brown’s relationship with a self-declared “fat man” (Paul Maxey), his interaction with a white-collar messenger (Peter Brocco), and the two-part twist near the end of the tale. If that twist was not entirely surprising, it was nonetheless satisfying. All the same, such aspects were rare peaks in an otherwise straight-ahead experience.

For a film noir, I was expecting more of a flawed and doomed protagonist. Yes, he’s initially prejudicial but — given the era — it doesn’t seem out of character for a cop to be scornful of crooks and their women. Instead he came across a generic player in a single location thriller.

In other ways, however, Narrow Margin hit the marks: black and white, high contrast, interesting angles; hats, trench coats, and cigarettes; whiplash dramatics and hard-boiled dialogue; cops and robbers and, naturally, dangerous dames.

It certainly began promisingly. Watching the opening sequence, I realized I didn’t know any of the names among dozens of people listed in the credits. I got hopeful for a surprise, but the biggest one of all was it didn’t really surprise me. I found nothing of significance to criticize, and yet nothing to grab me either. It did the job just well enough and now, at last, so have I.

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Not Rated

71 minutes

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