Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Narrow Margin (1952)

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.

30 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

Just skimmed it, looks real good, I will return to it in two hours or so with a response.

Alexander Coleman said...

I'd give you the same answer I gave that hood, Mrs. Neall, but that would mean stepping on your face."

Love that line from this film; consider that an addendum to my review, haha. Okay, Sam. (That line was not in any way directed towards you, or anyone else, ha.)

Tony said...

Your usual deep analysis Alexander rightly focuses on the that uber-hot dame with the incendiary eyes. The elimination of a major character as almost an aside, as you point out, is a major weakness, and overall the movie for me doesn't ever challenge its b-origins.

I don't really see it as a noir either - unless you consider the tragic irony of the undercover cop's fate as the major element. Though it does start off with a decidedly noir atmosphere before re-boarding the train, and this look resurfaces only at the end on the station platform, after the camera is freed again from the confines of the train. In this regard cameraman George E. Diskant deserves special mention, and the beautifully fluid shot behind the opening credits is particularly memorable.

Sam Juliano said...

I agree with Alexander's next-to-last-paragraph disclaimer, which Tony corroborated, as a serious enough flaw to keep this film in the B ranks. I won't get into whether it should be counted as a noir, but it's a sturdy thriller, with (as Alexander correctly asserts)"fine pacing and controlled direction." At 72 minutes it reminds me in it's controlled brevity, both Ulmer's DETOUR and also D.O.A. (I know our friends at MZ kind of dismissed those two, but there much there that warrants some modest praise) The "economy of setting and action" which Alexander says fueled THE NARROW MARGIN is also applicable to the others. I wholeheartedly agree on Alexander's exhaustive description of the characters played by Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor (for the latter, that "rasping scratchiness/calculous persona...smashingly elegant) and of the superb performances they deliver, along with able support from Jacqueline White, Paul Maxey, Sam Jennings and Peter Broco.
Prior to that, Alexander offered up an appropriate comparison of Walter Brown with both David Bannion of THE BIG HEAT and Leonard Diamond of THE BIG COMBO in a number of their character traits.
The very fine screenplay (noted in the review as an Original Screenplay nominee) evinces the thematic provisal "never judge a book by its cover" which perfectly encapsulates the various twists in the film's later sections.
Again, I agree it's far from a perfect thriller, but it certainly is quite a ride.

Beautiful review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Tony. I actually had just decided to write a review of this a moment before seeing your tribute to CCC and the noir pieces I have written. Quite serendipitous.

It does not truly challenge is B-movie origins, but it certainly does flaunt itself rather marvelously as such.

Marie Windsor is such a wonderful presence, in this, The Killers and so many other films. I've recorded and watched quite a few films simply because she was in them.

You're right, George E. Diskant's camerawork is astonishingly fluid and prodigious here.

I love the low angles of the early scenes before the cop and dame hop onto the train.

I do consider this a noir, and primarily for the reason you point to, as I consider the undercover cop's tragically ironic role here.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Sam, for the spirited response. (You snuck in there as I was replying to Tony's comment, ha.)

I must confess I do believe I think more highly of this film than you or Tony, as I tend to watch it probably three times a year--it's that kind of almost flawlessly graceful picture, with an exquisite technical mastery. The failings do not bother me even if I can acknowledge their existence. Sometimes we get close to a film and do not allow true objectivity in, until we must, as I had to writing this.

I like Detour, though for me the flaws stick out much more--perhaps partly because there are so many of them, compared to Fleischer's little gem--and D.O.A. is a deliriously fun thriller, especially if you are given the opportunity to see it in a packed house of alcohol-consuming noir fanatics who do not care much about following the plot but being soaked up in the atmosphere of the film, as I was, ha.

"Beautiful review."

Thank you very much.

Sam Juliano said...

If you are watching three times a year and are getting all those things from it, well then yes, I dare say you like it more than Tony or I. But I think that's a wonderful and infectious thing. I only saw this film a SINGLE time in my life. I definitely liked it, but true I didn't love it as I had those nagging issues with teh resolution.

Still, I say more power to you.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Sam.

I would say it's one of my guilty pleasures, but I don't feel guilty about it at all.

Perhaps you should take another look someday yourself, Sam. :-)

Tony D'Ambra said...

I think you have a crush on Marie Windsor - Alexander - I know I have :)

Ari said...

Great review. Love this movie. It's funny how some of these movies like Narrow Margin or Armored Car Robbery were seen as B pictures in their day. Compare that to most of the crime/suspense movies we have now.

Alexander Coleman said...

You got me, Tony. I'm guilty there. :)

Hi there, Ari, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I hope you stick around. I couldn't agree more: The Narrow Margin, Armored Car Robbery and so many other "B-movie" crime dramas of that time period stand out so well that they shame the majority of the crime/suspense pictures that come out these days, like you say.

As I was saying to a wise film buff in San Rafael today--whose eyes, I hope, are looking at this--for the most part in Hollywood, the old saw is accurate: they don't make them like they used to.

darkcitydame4e said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
darkcitydame4e said...

Hi! A.C.,

Taking my "cue" from S.J.,

I will return shortly!...in order to comment on the 1952 film The Narrow Margin. And now the question that will remain unanswered until I return is...

Do I consider the 1952 film "The Narrow Margin" a film noir?

Tks,
dcd ;)

Sam Juliano said...

"Taking my cue from Sam Juliano"


You are a peach, Dark City Dame!!!!

I look forward to what you will have to say about Alexander's review of NARROW MARGIN.

Alexander Coleman said...

I eagerly anticipate your further response to these questions and the review, Dark City Dame, ha.

darkcitydame4e said...

Film critic Blake Lucas makes the case that "The Narrow Margin" reflects the "noir view" of an unstable and deceiving moral reality."

A.C., Wow!... after reading your review, "This Noir "dame" think that you described the 1952 film "The Narrow Margin" just like a film critic...appraising every
detail of the main characters, minor characters, the film plot, and even the role of director Richard Fleischer in the film.
leaving no "rail structure" untouched.. as the train pulled into "Los Angeles" I found your review to be very perceptive,
because of your very "keen insight!" when it comes to you analyzing not only this film, but other films too!
(A.C., now you want me to tell you how I really feel?..ha!)

Now...
The question that begs to be answered...
Do I consider the 1952 "B" film "The Narrow Margin" a film noir?
Yes, I do consider the 1952 film
"The Narrow Margin" a Film Noir.

Because that "famous” or “infamous" film noir circle of people that I travel with they base whether a film deserves film noir status on the list that I plan to email you in a few minutes... Alexander and guess what?!?... all 10 authors on that list reached a "consensus" that the 1952 film “The Narrow Margin” is considered a “film noir” ...Which is kind of "rare" on that list! for all 10 authors to be in complete agreement.(Well,
maybe not?!?)


Btw, A.C. are you familiar with author Eddie Muller, (ha!) well his best friend AkR, (Alan K.Rode) just wrote a book about actor Charles McGraw entitled guess what?!? Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy and I am quite sure that he devoted
chapters in his book on the 1952 film “Narrow Margin.” (But, I am not quite sure, since I have not read his book yet!)


Thank-you!
ps
I plan to email Sam, Tony D'Ambra and you information about actress Marie Windsor and her death scene in the film “The Narrow Margin” in a few minutes. Stay tune!

dcd ;)

Alexander Coleman said...

Dark City Dame, thank you very much for the excellent response and for your own evalutation of the film as a noir. Interesting what you have to say about Eddie Muller (whose Noir City festivals in winter at the Castro I have attended in the last couple of years, and I've met him, too), and that ten-person panel concerning The Narrow Margin's status as a film noir.

Thank you again for the very kind words, and I'm always happy to see the resident "Dark City Dame" pleased with a review of a film noir. :-)

Alexander Coleman said...

Where is your email, Dark City Dame? :(

darkcitydame4e said...

Hi! A.C.,
I'am so sorry!...about the delay!
Coming right up!

dcd :)

darkcitydame4e said...

Alexander said, "Interesting what you have to say about Eddie Muller (whose Noir City festivals in winter at the Castro I have attended in the last couple of years, and I've met him, too)"
You have met author Eddie Muller?...Want you "introduce me?!?"(Smile) :-)
Btw, You also communicated with him during Film noir month at MZ
if I am not mistaken?!?
Lucky, Alexander!

(At last!..Being a "film noir fanatic," I have only communicated with him through email!)"Sigh"

dcd ;)

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, Dark City Dame, I have spoken with Eddie Muller in person several times at the Castro! :-)

And he did contact me at Movie-Zeal with regards to my review of The Big Heat right here.

Dark City Dame, thank you so much for those highly informative emails about The Narrow Margin! Fascinating reads, they were especially rewarding for me, as a major fan of the film.

darkcitydame4e said...

Hi! A.C.
You don't have to response to my comment due to the "pain in your shoulder," but "shame" on Howard Hughes!...for "cutting" the most important scene from the 1952 film!("The Narrow Margin")

Take care!
dcd

darkcitydame4e said...

Hi! A.C.

I read all of your reviews from the MZ (M)onth of film noir... remember, I told you that you "hit" the "film noir trifecta" when I posted on your blog for the first time.

Take care!
dcd

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, shame on Howard Hughes, Dark City Dame.

Of course, I know you've read my Movie-Zeal noir pieces, Dark City Dame. Your waltzing into Coleman's Corner with the Out of the Past review at the time of my Noir Trifecta piece going up was reminiscent of Jane Greer coming out of the sun in that beautiful film.

darkcitydame4e said...

Hi! Alexander,
Below is a couple of films that are considered film noir(s) that I checked out on TCM yesterday...Did you watch any of these classic films yesterday, while you were sitting there on your couch? ha!...All kidding! aside, I really do "wish" you a "Speedy recovery!"



Macao (1952)
A man on the run in the Far East is mistaken for an undercover cop. Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, William Bendix. Dir: Josef von Sternberg. BW-81 mins,


Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Detective Philip Marlowe's search for a two-timing woman leads him to blackmail and murder. Cast: Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley. Dir: Edward Dmytryk. BW-95mins,(A Classic noir)

Out of the Past (1947)
A private eye becomes the dupe of a homicidal moll. Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas. Dir: Jacques Tourneur. BW-97 mins, (A Classic noir)

I have never watched the 2 films!...listed below, but I do own them...

...They Live by Night (1949)
After an unjust prison sentence, a young innocent gets mixed-up with hardened criminals and a violent escape. Cast: Farley Granger, Cathy O'Donnell, Howard da Silva. Dir: Nicholas Ray. BW-96 mins,

On Dangerous Ground (1951) A tough cop sent to help in a mountain manhunt falls for the quarry's blind sister. Cast: Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Ward Bond. Dir: Nicholas Ray. BW-82 mins,

dcd ;-)

Take care! A.C.,

Alexander Coleman said...

I wasn't watching TCM yesterday, Dark City Dame, but I have seen all of those films before (a couple of them multiple times--Out of the Past probably aroudn twenty-five times, haha)...

I heartily recommend They Live by Night and On Dangerous Ground, two excellent noirs by Nicholas Ray. Have you seen the "other" film noir in Ray's trilogy of noir, Dark City Dame, the Bogart-starring In a Lonely Place?

Thank you for the wishes of a speedy recovery. :-)

Christopher said...

LOVE this movie. Your descriptions of the two main characters are sublime.

This is the only movie I've seen Windsor in but I loved her in it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Christopher.

Windsor is a delight. I'm sure I found her in this before anything else, but every time I see a film with her, it's a splendid treat.

Sam Juliano said...

I envy Christopher for coming to this great stuff for the first time!

barack obama said...

i won by a WIDE margin!!!!!!!!!!