Detective Sergeant Walter Brown is a man made up of inclement parts, but morally salubrious when weighed as a sum, a whole. His gruff, stoically shielded oafishness gives him a kind of impervious protective coating. Thick-shouldered, lantern-jawed, hardboiled and gravel-voiced, he is in so many physical ways, the embodiment of the cop belonging to the genre of film noir, and while less garrulous than another detective sergeant, Dave Bannion in the next year's The Big Heat, Brown is just as fearlessly principled and perilously heedless in his gritty determination and unbending righteousness. Like Bannion and Lieutenant Leonard Diamond in The Big Combo three years later, Brown is temerarious when confronted by the insuperable odds of the thuggish gangsters who are his foreordained foes, his innumerably faceless bete noire. Brown is played by noir natural Charles McGraw, whose verbal and visual asperity serve as a comprehensive lamina at all times.
The dame, a spitfire vixen of doubtful ethics, is literally and figuratively defined by the man to whom she married, a killed crime boss named Frankie Neall. Mrs. Frankie Neall, or Mrs. Neall, as she will be called, must be protected by Brown on the trip from Chicago to Los Angeles so she can testify to the grand jury about the graft and corruption she knows about. Her moral mercurialness contrasts perfectly against Brown's tautly linear code of ethics. Made out to be cheap, unflatteringly ostentatious and routinely shrill, Mrs. Neall is a real piece of work, as the protagonist might say. It's a role demanding a fine actress to play it, and in that role queen of Hollywood B-movies Marie Windsor radiates, taking what could have become a character soused in annoyingly cacophonous embroidery, and making it into a fully fleshed-out, indelibly personable figure of reason and sensible reaction. Windsor is a B-movie treasure, repeatedly and reliably turning in gutsy, candidly authentic performances in her pictures, often stealing the show in small supporting parts. Here she is given a full stage on which to work and she is, behind the surface of rasping scratchiness and calculous persona, smashingly elegant.
The film is The Narrow Margin, a 1952 B-noir thriller that works with a precision and exactitude that very few features ever find. At 72 minutes, the film is blessed with perfect pacing and laudably controlled direction by Richard Fleischer, one of the more under-appreciated directors of his era. Fleischer's command is exquisite, and conveyed early on. The economy of setting and action is remarkable, breathlessly taking the viewer through a brief battle before anyone would probably expect the action to begin—Brown's aging partner is fatally gunned down as the two cops are simply endeavoring to take Mrs. Neall down a staircase—to the discomforting confines of a train, on which the great bulk of the film plays out, with Brown navigating his way through the maze of deceit, treachery and minacious evildoing aboard with the cop and moll.
Character actors such as the sunny Jacqueline White as a woman named Ann Sinclair, the corpulent Paul Maxey as a humorous but possibly fiendish passenger named Sam Jennings and the peculiarly miry Peter Brocco as a loathsome mob confederate who offers Brown a juicy bribe, show up, aiding the film in suspensefully portraying the labyrinthine train (which in reality was depicted from inside the interior studio by bouncing and moving the camera, giving the effect of a speeding train) as one overwhelming receptacle of malice and intrigue. Brown must decipher the reality of the situation, and Fleischer in a later interview would say that he directed McGraw by telling him to act as though the pressure was waxing at every moment, stressing the cop out almost to the breaking point with every narrative and train track turn.
One of the thematic interests at work is the old bromide about never judging a book by its cover. As Brown and his partner discuss the woman to whom they are assigned before meeting her, they make a bet. Brown believes Mrs. Neall will be a low-class tomato with an ugly personality; his partner, older, more sensitive, wants to believe otherwise, and so they wager five dollars on it. Mrs. Neall behaves in a manner entirely fitting Brown's conception (though she does not exude a clueless ditziness or a true sluttiness), causing Brown to ask his partner to give him the five bucks he suddenly owes him. Brown conjectured before seeing Mrs. Neall that she would be just another example of the unkempt human debris he must confront on the job—only in the form of a “sixty-cent special... poison under the gravy”—and by the way Mrs. Neall acts, he believes he has found precisely the woman he figured he would be stuck with. As the relationship slowly deepens, however, defined as it is by the ceaseless struggle to keep the woman alive, Brown gradually empathizes with the woman he is charged with protecting, though his eyes tend to wander to the far more dapper and sprite of a lady, Ann Sinclair, at one point angering Mrs. Neall, who herself comprehends just how repulsed Brown is of her in so many ways, seeing her as a meretricious distraction (“My partner's dead... and you're alive... some trade,” the cop bitterly philosophizes). Fleischer, working from a screenplay written by Earl Felton, which would be nominated for Best Original Screenplay by the Academy Awards for its crackling dialogue and tightly wound narrative pacing and ingenuity, commendably presses the point down like a ceramicist molding clay, without ever clumsily crushing the creation with an overdone thesis.
Between the rugged masculinity of Brown and the pent-up, timorous sexiness of Mrs. Neall, is the efficacious technical prowess Fleischer so enticingly exhibits. Shot in only a few days, the film's soundtrack is made up from the robust sounds of the train, utilized to startlingly brilliant effect. Underlying the claustrophobic tension of the ensuing action is the moiling steam engine wheels, simulating the meticulous engineering of the richly layered plot, and the driving power behind Felton's commoving narrative. An unforgettable cutaway from Windsor's Mrs. Neall nervously furbishing her fingernails with a file to the roaring, mechanized synchronization and incessant repeated movement of the wheels of the train lingers forever in the mind of anyone who has viewed the spectacle.
The film is almost perfect, but perfection is in most matters impossibly lofty. A late major twist is at best questionable in its internal logic; the fate of an even more major character is negligently handled by the screenplay, abandoning any reasonable move to return to the emotional core of the film's largely highly successful story; there may be, for some, one coincidence too many. Yet those sore spots do not in the least sour the experience of this briskly traveled yarn of celerity. The themes resonate, and the characters are victoriously attendant in the mind of the viewer, as these two particularly well-drawn, superbly human individuals wrestle with each other and finally themselves. Film noir is an expansive genre, and the depth and breadth of its many spiritually vanquished and desperate figures, from the pitiless and periodically psychotic gangster to the shadowy informant to the hapless dupe, and from the feral femme fatale to the misunderstood vixen, and from the cop gone crooked to the one who allows his lawful uprightness to counterbalance all other deficiencies, are nothing less than amaranthine in their undying importance. Those onerous thematic undercurrents may be more difficult to delve into with a film so enjoyably fun and vibrant as The Narrow Margin, but they are just as easily appreciated, perhaps more so, distilled as they are as the exemplar beings, woven into the fabric of this, a supposed B-movie of valiant aspirations.