Movie Review: The Narrow Margin (1952)

What did I watch: the 1950-something crime “thriller” The Narrow Margin.

How did I watch it? On DVD, via Netflix.

And? You can skip this one.

The Narrow Margin is a 50’s police adventure movie full of some character actors playing characters with very little character. It has some misdirects and reveals of twists that elicit yaws from viewers on the edge of their seats, getting up to take the DVD out of the DVD player.

Or I’m describing myself. I wonder if this was a hit in the 50’s? I also wonder if there was a story here that was changed before filming for something where certain characters’ motivations aren’t as vicious as they seem. Which is sad, because there was one part of the story that was pretty interesting before revealing it was a complete fake out. SO, spoilers.

Tough as nails cop Charles McGraw, whose catch phrase is “SHADDAP!,” has to escort the widow of a mobster from Chicago to LA via trail while mobster hitmen chase them. The hitmen kill his partner, and McGraw hides the widow, a mean spirited lady played by Marie Windsor. They hop on a train and Windsor berates McGraw constantly while he scours the train for more hitmen. Who pretty much walk up to him and say “we’re mobsters.” Because that’s what one guy does, trying to bribe McGraw.

There’s a few more characters on the train, including a large man on the train whose size is a running gag and plot device, an almost-hurdle for everyone to deal with in the train’s narrow hallways (okay, this THIS the Narrow of The Narrow Margin?). There’s also a sweet lady our hero fumbles around, that the mobsters mistake for Windsor. (Uh, the mobsters have no idea what the widow looks like.)

In the movie’s most interesting idea, Windsor is THRILLED by this. The heat is off her, and she relishes in the idea that the sweet blonde lady could throw the mobsters off Windsor’s trail if they kill off the blonde lady.

Windsor is awesome in this moment, and this is the only time I’m actually concerned for anyone. McGraw HAS to protect Windsor, but at the risk of the life of the sweet lady he met on the train, right?

WELL, of all the plot threads I am skipping in the 70+ minute piece of bland, it turns out the one I can’t skip, SPOILER, is that Windsor is herSELF a cop. WHAT? WHAAAAT? The whole thing is a misdirect, and also a test. Is McGraw corruptable? Well, before his superiors can find out, McGraw has inadvertently led the mobsters to the REAL widow on the train. (Guess who it is?) Unless it’s NOT a coincidence. Also, before McGraw’s superiors can find out, Windsor is killed by the goons, killing off the most interesting character and what was the real plot to the film.

There’s very little tension remaining, at least comparatively to the idea that Windsor as the actual widow would do what she could to manipulate everyone to fool the goons into killing an innocent woman, only for some kind of true noir comeuppance. This is regarded as a noir classic, but by whom? The goons put the blonde lady & her family in danger for a moment as McGraw corners them, and then there’s a car driven by a mobster that is chasing the train for half the movie. McGraw sees this car, notifies the police, and the car is pulled over and everyone is arrested because they’re tied to the mob. (This has to be the least thought out part of their plan; wouldn’t they have to pull over to get gas for their 40’s gas guzzler after chasing a train halfway across the country?)

The movie ends with McGraw and the blonde lady walking to city hall. You know, to help her testify, but they walk arm in arm and it’s the 50’s so that means that they’ve fallen for each other and once they get to city hall they’ll be married. (I don’t think I’m exaggerating, that’s what happens in these movies.)

Also, there are two dead cops. McGraw spends most of the time guilting Windsor about his partner  who died protecting her, and then she dies. All to be a test or prove some kind of point to McGraw while the real person needed to be protected just happens to be on the same train. On his way to city hall, will he talk about his dead parner(s)?

It’s mercifully short, but even a short boring movie is interminable. There’s a few nice images in this noir wannabe, mostly involving trains and the reflections of windows  lining up to reveal people’s locations. I don’t know what else to mention other than Marie Windsor, who had me fooled. She comes off as pure evil, and though  I’d have rather see her evil plan get derailed, I felt bad for her when she gets taken out. The ante has been upped, the good guys are truly in danger, but I don’t feel any concern for the meathead McGraw or the real widow.

So, is it noir? No, and don’t believe any noir movie lists. It won an Academy Award for best screenplay but I don’t know what screenplay the Academy got, this movie is nowhere near as interesting.

If I should skip this one, is there anything by the cast or crew I should see? Richard Fleischer, son of animator Max Fleischer, helmed a ton of movies, including the terrible Conan The Destroyer and Red Sonja, but he also made Fantastic Voyage and some other well known sci-fi classics. Or “classics.” We’ll probably sit through a few more of his films in the future.

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