Friday, 15 April 2011

"The Narrow Margin" Review

Of all film genres or movements, film noir has produced possibly of most of the many underseen treasures in Hollywood history. The Narrow Margin, while not as iconic as the Bogie blockbusters The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, is nevertheless an entertaining and sharp noir thriller. Aside from being a film noir, it also belongs to the subgenre of the "train thriller," which includes, among others, Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, which as a huge Hitchcock fan I'm ashamed to say I haven't seen yet, as well as Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich, and Narrow Margin, the 1990 remake of The Narrow Margin, starring Gene Hackman. You could also include the second James Bond film From Russia with Love, with its long section on board the Orient Express, which of course was the setting of what may be the ultimate train thriller, Agatha Christie's novel Murder on the Orient Express. The novel was adapted in 1974 by the late Sidney Lumet in to an all star film of the same name. Basically, the "train thriller" subgenre is mighty packed. There's actually a fight scene in The Narrow Margin that'll remind some viewers of the fight scene between James Bond and Red Grant fight in From Russia from With Love.

The plot of The Narrow Margin is relatively straight forward. Two cops, Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) are assigned to encompany a murdered mobster's wife Mrs. Neal (Marie Windsor) on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles in order for her to testify against the mob. The film does a good job of raising the tension early on by (Mild Spoilers) killing off Forbes. This lays out that the mob are already trying to kill Mrs. Neal. The tension is heightened even more by the relationship between Brown and Neal. Unlike other film noir heroes Brown has no romantic interest in Neal. He makes it clear he doesn;'t like her. He's also surprisingly sensitive about Forbes' death. He's no Sam Spade, who couldn't care less about his partner's murder. These are two interesting twists on film noir achetypes, the femme fatale who casts no spell over the film noir hero and the sensitivity of the film noir hero, who usually prefers being a loner. Clearly Brown amired Forbes. It's the antagonistic relationship between Brown and Neal which heightens the tension even more after Forbes' death. It makes the audience question how Brown can protect a woman he dislikes so much as well as question how Neal can stay alive if she's at odds with Brown. Brown is offered a bribe by Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco), a man who works for the mob but Brown refuses. For me, the fact that Brown doesn't like Neal makes his nobility regarding protecting all the more admirable.

While watching the film I thought how a train is a perfect metaphor for a thriller. A train is claustrophaubic and is constantly moving, only slowing down occasionally. The Narrow Margin may be too slow paced for some viewers but I though it had plenty of tension, just that it's vrey much underneath the surface, not always calling attention to itself. The slowest parts of the film involve Brown's relationship with fellow passenger Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White) and her son Tommy (Gordon Gelbert). What interested me the most about her charcter was if she was going to be similar to another charcter in the 1990 remake. His relationship with these characters were the only things that divided me about this film. I really liked the payoff with her character as well as the fact that the filmmakers didn't try too hard to make her a love interest, I wasn't as engaged with the Ann Sinclair character until near the end when she compares Brown to a train, everything around him is a blur, only when he slows down does he notice anything. I also thought the Tommy character took some of the edge off the film for me.

The Narrow Margin was a film I thought I had figured out pretty early on but there are some good twists which can make a repeat viewing an intrguing experience. This is the first film I've seen McGraw or Windsor in and they're both very good. McGraw epitomizes a stoic yet sensitive and noble cop who'll won't tarnish his honour by accepting bribes and Windsor, quite striking, is a great femme fatale, the first shot of her in the film encapsulating a sense of danger and mystery about this woman. The Narrow Margin is a very fine piece of old fashioned Hollywood entertainment and I highly recommend it.

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