The Narrow Margin (1952)

Gus: “What about this dame, Mr. Crystal Ball?”
Walter: “A dish.”
Gus: “What kind of a dish?”
Walter: “Sixty-cent special. Cheap, flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy.””

Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) are Los Angeles police detectives, having just arrived in Chicago to corral Mrs. Neall, the widow of a notorious gangster.  Mrs. Neall (Marie Windsor) has been called to testify on a grand jury case in LA.

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(Image via Collectorz)

It’s Gus and Walter’s job to get her to California. Most importantly, it’s their job to get her there alive. Naturally, her decision to testify does not sit will with her late husband’s former associates, or his enemies — some of whom may be boarding the very same train as Mrs. Neall and her escorts.

The Narrow Margin was directed by Richard Fleischer. The film was written for the screen by Earl Felton from a story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard.

This is one of those films I’ve been hearing about for years but had never watched. I managed to catch it recently on WatchTCM after it aired during Noir Alley.

From the opening, I was so glad I happened to browse WatchTCM that day, finally getting the chance to watch this film. It opens with high impact, the viewer’s ears immediately assaulted by the sound of a train’s horn (perhaps made even more impactful by the fact that I was watching on my laptop, with headphones!).

The rest of the film keeps up the pace, with plenty of action. The run time is fairly short, but not a single minute is wasted. The Narrow Margin is what is known as a “can picture,” taking place almost entirely on a train. This mostly-confined setting, and the constant threat of a fellow passenger trying to off Mrs. Neall, keep the mood consistently tense throughout the film.

Marie Windsor’s performance is another aspect that works to the film’s benefit. She’s brash, loud, moody, and snarky — everything I love in a noir dame. But she’s also somewhat fearful and anxious.

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(Image via The Last Drive In)

Fitting the description of “hard-boiled” to a tee, the film is also wonderfully photographed, adding to its noir appeal. It’s even got a pretty great twist, which I didn’t quite see coming, even as a seasoned viewer of criminal plots and murder mysteries.

The Narrow Margin is an A-grade B-movie. Do yourself a favor and avoid my mistake: seek it out immediately if you’ve never seen it! It’s not one to be missed.

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6 thoughts on “The Narrow Margin (1952)

  1. It’s a great little film. Have you seen the remake, with Gene Hackman? Despite Hackman’s good performance, it doesn’t work as well as the original …

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    1. I haven’t! The early ‘90s are a big blind spot for me since I was born in ‘91, haha. I’m always interested in watching remakes, though, so maybe I’ll give it a look some time.

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