With a plot moving as briskly as the train on which it’s set, not a moment is wasted in director Richard Fleischer’s sleek pulp classic.
A gangster’s moll (Marie Windsor) books passage from Chicago to Los Angeles to testify against the mob before a grand jury. Detective Sergeant Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) is assigned to her case to act as her bodyguard — a task he handles with barely concealed trepidation. He doesn’t like this moll and he’s worried that her backtalk and headstrong personality will land them in hot water. Det. Brown’s concerns are soon realized when it becomes apparent that the hitmen are also aboard the train and have their sights set on eliminating the moll as a threat.
It’s simple, linear narrative of good versus evil (based on a story by Martin Goldsmith, who also co-wrote the script), contains a liberal dose of witty banter and salty backtalk. With the criminal element taken off the city streets and placed on a claustrophobic train, The Narrow Margin is a highly stylized noir lensed by director of photography George E. Diskant. The film visualizes the thick tension and paranoia within the script through scenes of long chases down cramped hallways and fistfights in close quarters, which only serves to enhance the overriding sense of dread. Its inventive camera angles (a kick coming straight at the camera or an over-the-shoulder glimpse of a fight) give the illusion of a higher production value for a film that was essentially made on a dime.
Charles McGraw portrays Det. Brown as a gruff, weathered cop who long ago reconciled himself to the fact that he’ll occasionally have to endanger his own life for a witness he doesn’t particularly like. With his recent assignment testing his patience, McGraw especially excels in his scenes with Windsor as the willful moll. He spits out short sentences and insults as though the very act of having a discussion with someone is a waste of time. When his hardened, yet noble, exterior cracks at one point when he’s briefly tempted to give in to a mobster’s monetary bribes, McGraw skillfully treads the fine line between being a good cop — and becoming a corrupt cop tucked into the mob’s back pocket.
Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor
However, it’s B-movie queen Marie Windsor who gives the film’s showstopping performance as the tough-gal moll. With her expressive eyes and gravelly voice, she lures you into her tangled web of secrets and mistaken identities. She carries an air of mystery, yet allows for brief glimpses of vulnerability that only make her more appealing.
Unfortunately, despite its stunning camerawork and strong lead performances,The Narrow Margin never quite rises above its basic cat-and-mouse game. Although there is a couple of genuine twists that manage to maintain their shock value 60 years later, the plot is riddled with holes that detract from the overall experience, leaving far too many question unanswered.
In the end, The Narrow Margin is entertaining escapism that ultimately lacks substance — but it sure is nice to look at.