Was there ever such a hard boiled twosome – they snipe and snarl at each other, trading insults with contempt wrapped around every word.
That’s MARIE WINDSOR and CHARLES MCGRAW in THE NARROW MARGIN. This is Noir at its bleakest. There’s no happy ending in Narrow Margin for Marie Windsor’s character. And McGraw’s character is left with the knowledge that his superiors have kept him in the dark about the true nature of his assignment.
Marie Windsor plays Mrs Neall, a racketeer’s widow on her way by train from Chicago to Los Angeles to testify before a Grand Jury about her late husband’s corrupt dealing with city officials.
McGraw is Detective Brown whose job it is to get Mrs. Neall safely to her destination. Early in the film, his partner (played by Don Beddoe ) is killed by one of the gangsters trying to stop Mrs. Neall from testifying.
Brown is naturally upset at the murder of Beddoe. Mrs. Neall’s reaction is so callous: “Some protection they send me. An old man who walks right into it and a weeper.”
Brown says:”My partner’s dead. He’s dead and you’re alive.”…..he looks her up and down before adding, “Some exchange.”
This woman is something else!
Later, Brown tells her, “Sister, I’ve known some pretty hard cases in my time. You make ’em all look like putty.”
She tries to bribe him, “This train’s headed straight for the cementary. But there’s another one coming along, a gravy train. Let’s get on it.” (She has her late husband’s pay-off list which could be dynamite).
Brown answers: “Mrs. Neall, I’d like to give you the same answer I gave that hood- but it would mean stepping on your face.”
So that’s the set up. Windsor and McGraw exchange some of the crispest Noir dialogue ever. The whole film is nearly perfect, a 71 minute non-stop thriller,made on a small budget and filmed in 17 days.
The train set is just that, an RKO set so real, you do believe they have taken over a train for the filming. A great set design.
There are a few plot holes but none detract from Narrow Margin except for the ending which is so abrupt that I cannot be the only viewer who felt cheated.
The twist in the plot is that Mrs. Neall is actually an undercover policewoman who is acting as a decoy for the real Mrs. Neall (played by Jacqueline White) . The policewoman’s name is Sarah Meggs and she is shot and killed by one of the gangsters on board the train. She is shot in the back as she reaches for the gun in her purse.
Jacqueline White makes the most of the role of an unlikely looking gangster’s wife. A pity Jacqueline gave up the movie industry after this film.
The film ends with Detective Brown escorting the real Mrs. Neall out of the station in Los Angeles, where two officials are waiting for them. Nothing is said about the undercover policewoman’s murder. We never see Brown’s reaction to the fact that he has been bad-mouthing a fellow police officer who has been risking her life in the line of duty.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a scene where the McGraw character would express some remorse (and anger at his bosses for not letting him know what was going on.)
The film’s producer, Stanley Rubin, in a 2002 interview, said that there was a scene at the end with McGraw and White stopping to see Windsor’s body, but that the scene was removed by studio head, Howard Hughes.
Rubin also said that Hughes held up the film’s release for a year as he considered turning it into an ‘A’ film. It proved a sleeper hit for RKO just as it was.
A reviewer on TCM, Kevin Sellers, sums up my feelings about the ending,
“The way to end this film was to have McGraw and Windsor exiting the train in Los Angeles, squabbling and sniping at each other like they did in the best scenes in the film.”
Director Richard Fleischer can be seen talking about Narrow Margin at the Directors Guild of America website (https://www.dga.org). He said, “The Narrow Margin took all of 17 days to shoot. It was a wonderful experience working on that film. ……Practically none of the film was shot on a train. ……I used the hand held camera – it really helped so much – it didn’t have that artificiality of being rigid. It made it possible for us to track and dolly on the narrow confines of the train(set).”
Fleischer also said, “I was at RKO for 7 years. I never got an A picture.” (He subsequently moved to Twentieth Century Fox.)
Aside from the film’s unexpected and unsatisfactory ending, there are a few other script queries.
Why would the authorities let the real Mrs. Neall travel without any security, and why would they or she put her young son in danger by letting him travel with her.
Speaking of the son (played by Gordon Gerbert), wouldn’t the hoods who are after Mrs. Neall know that the dead racketeer had a son? (Incidentally, I’d have cut all the scenes with the annoying child!)
And of course you could query why none of the bad guys knew what she looked like.
McGraw’s character is an experienced detective. Why would he put Jacqueline White’s character in danger by talking to her. He knows he is being watched.
But my other big question about the plot is regarding the character Marie Windsor plays. I am reminded of Kim Novak’s character in Vertigo – Judy becomes Madeleine completely.
Why would the undercover policewoman portray such a monstrous character. Why is she so antagonistic to Brown. Is there any truth in the suggestion that , being from Internal Affairs, she is testing Brown’s integrity – she does try to bribe him, as does one of the gangsters .
Am I asking too many questions!
But there is so much to enjoy and appreciate in The Narrow Margin – including Paul Maxey as the rotund railroad detective whose girth emphasises the narrow corridors on the train.
Earl Fenton wrote the script.
There’s a good interview with Utah born Marie Windsor at http://www.piute.org/History/Marie_Windsor.htm
Marie studied under Maria Ouspenskaya ( Maybe her first name ,Marie, was a tribute to her teacher).
She was married for 46 years to Jack Hupp, a Beverley Hills realtor. Marie died in 2000 ,aged 80
One of her comments in the interview was :
” I’m 5′ 9″ and there were two stars who didn’t mind that I was taller than they – George Raft and John Garfield….I had to do a tango with Raft, and I learned to dance in ballet shoes with my knees bent.!”
Richard Fleischer also directed Charles McGraw in the 1950 ARMORED CAR ROBBERY – McGraw also lost his partner in that great film.