' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Narrow Margin (1952)

Friday, November 03, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Narrow Margin (1952)

“The Narrow Margin” takes place mostly on a train, where Detective Sergeant Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) is tasked with squiring a mobster’s wife, Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor), by rail from Chicago to Los Angeles, where she, in possession of her husband’s payoff list, will testify to a grand jury. Naturally a few baddies want her dead and they wind up on the train too, where director Richard Fleischer does a nifty job employing the cramped quarters to emphasize Brown’s thin margin for error, including one of the baddies, mustachioed Kemp (David Clarke), looming, watching in nearly every shot, and when the two men finally erupt in a physical confrontation, they hardly even have the space to tussle, just sort of brawling while clenched together. Of course, Kemp and his cohort Yost (Peter Brocco), who tries to bribe Brown, are also almost as dumb as rocks, failing to ascertain that Frankie is in the very room next door to Brown which Brown claims is empty. But then, that’s why the movie runs a lickety-split 71 minutes and spends most of that time running straight-ahead on a literal rail; if Brown barely has time to stop and think, neither do we.

The movie opens in the thick of noir, not to mention cigarette smoke, which engulfs the screen when we and Brown, and his older, paunchier partner Forbes (Don Beddoe), first meet Frankie. She gives more than she takes, and they give more than they take too, and while Forbes doesn’t say he’s too old for this shit but you sense it anyway, particularly in a wonderful shot where he smokes a stogie while Brown smokes a cigarette, emblemizing their respective places on the totem pole. Forbes, however, bites a literal bullet before they can even get to the train, which initiates suspense but also immediately puts Brown at odds with Frankie, blaming her for his partner’s death, which Frankie, in a sizzling performance by Windsor, who has her character look at Brown like she knows that he knows his own miserable lot in life, seems all too happy to rub his nose in.

On the train, where she can’t leave her room lest she be seen, which doesn’t completely make sense because for some reason Kemp and Yost have never seen her, Frankie and Brown are repeatedly forced into close proximity, where Fleischer plays up the claustrophobia as much as he can, these quarreling two right at each other’s throats. Yet even as Brown can hardly stand to be around her, he nevertheless remains committed to protecting her, which struck me as a bit Bruce Willis-y, that way in which, to paraphrase the late Roger Ebert, he knew he could never live with himself for failing to do something even if that something was going to be a pain in the ass. Willis, however, typically dresses that idea up in laconic heroism while in “The Narrow Margin” McGraw gives it the ring of resentment.

That resentment is what paves the way for the movie’s most brutal twist, in which Brown is made to realize, through a bit of identity subterfuge, that he is nothing more than a stooge for the PD, made to risk his life simply to re-prove the honest-cop credentials he thought were already proven, all revealed in a scene where McGraw really lets Brown choke on it. This twist, however, asks us to believe that Frankie would have gone to absurd lengths to put the nail in his coffin and sort of leaves Frankie to rot, relegating her to a tragic turn where she takes one for the team while failing to afford the proper emotional release in its wake. Indeed, “The Narrow Margin” is conspicuously determined to finish by finding a little sunshine at the end of the train tracks, no matter the cost, which makes the destination oddly jarring even if the journey getting there is, for all its story holes, ominously shrouded in the shadows.

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