Written by Earl Felton
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Single-location films can be a tough sell for some. In some instances, the location might seem too preposterous to be the setting for an entire story, thus creating a sense that the project is based on a gimmick. It requires some considerable storytelling prowess to properly convey the reasons why characters would remain in said location if dangers lurk around every corner, and to create new, plausible threats to keep the interest level high. Trains as single-location settings present some interesting challenges. They offer its passengers the opportunity to peruse its in and outs in many ways, not all of which offer a lot of breathing room. Richard Fleischer turned out to be one such director capable of taking full advantage of the setting with 1952’s The Narrow Margin.
Detective Sergeants Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) are assigned with escorting the widow of a recently killed mob boss, Mrs. Frankie Neal (Marie Windsor), to a grand jury for an important testimony where several key mob names shall apparently be revealed. The deceased’s many enemies try to their utmost to liquidate Mrs. Neal from the get-go, attacking the trio as they leave her apartment, killing Forbes in the process. Brown and the cantankerous Mrs. Neal rush to their scheduled train for Los Angeles only to discover that another killer (David Clarke) has snuck on board. McGraw must protect Mrs. Neal, for whom he holds nothing but disdain, find a way to nullify the killer, all while dealing with several colourful passengers, such as a boisterous, rotund man (Paul Maxey) and Mrs. Sinclair (Jacqueline White), a lovely blonde who catches his eye.
Today, releasing a film less 80 minutes in length is almost unheard of. It seems as if the duration of a movie directly correlates with a patron’s level of satisfaction. Back in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, films that lasted barely over an hour were more popular, although this is because they were often projected as part of double bills. Even so, it is remarkable how some writers and directors were capable of consistently telling fully realized stories in almost as much time as today’s hourlong dramas. The Narrow Margin is only 71 minutes and packs a lot of punch. More impressive still is that the majority of the plot transpires within the train, which takes Det. Sgt. Brown and Mrs. Neal to the grand jury hearing. Completely absent is any fat that would prolong the running time, such as scenes depicting backstory, additional character development, or side plots to artificially ramp up tension. The number of characters is limited to exactly what the story requires and the filmmakers go all out in exploring the many ways in which Det. Sgt. Brown’s job is made more difficult by boxing him in a train, where suspicious characters and motivations can turn up at any given moment, not to mention having to go back to check on the incredulously snappy Mrs. Neal.
Fleischer and his team make as much use out of their location as possible, their efforts bearing full fruits in terms of style and energy. Because the confines of a train are limiting (quickly entering and exiting various compartments, turning the corners of hallways, transferring from one car to the next, and so on), the camera angles and edits must be judiciously selected for purposes of clarity. On that level, The Narrow Margin is a very well produced bit of cinema. The cuts happen at a surprisingly rapid pace given the editing style of the era (slower in modern filmmaking), but they all make sense and help guide the viewer as he or she follows Brown from one place to the next, often seeing him walk or run across the rooms and spaces between locations A and Z. In what looks like an amazingly early precursor to popular documentary-style cinematography, the camera sometimes runs behind Brown as he races down a hallway to come to someone’s aid. At one point, there is a fistfight between Brown and a lurking gangster inside a tiny room. Rather than present the scene with a series of sharp edits, Fleischer opts to have the camera follow the action either by remaining as far as possible from the two strongmen or closing in, as when Brown is tossed onto a bench and responds with a kick aimed straight at the viewer.
Just as Fleischer greatly assists the viewer in perceiving the action from within the train’s various closed in spaces, so does the story flirt with the idea of how people are perceived. At the start of the picture, Brown and his partner have a conversation about what sort of women would marry a mobster, the latter arguing that any kind of would. The appearance of Mrs. Neal seems to confirms Brown’s suspicions that only the trashy sort go for hoodlums, although his inclinations are eventually proven false. Ann Sinclair’s young son is fascinated with Brown, but more because he believes he may be a train robber than a cop, which is understandable considering the gruff manner with which McGraw plays the character. The fat man Brown keeps running into joyfully tosses self-deprecating remarks about his obesity whilst making passage in hallways difficult for all involved. There may not be a definitive through-line as to what the film is trying to say about perception, other than that things are not always what they seem, but the clever play on characterizations add some dimension to the story.
The Narrow Margin is a taut, fun adventure. It does not overstay its welcome; it knows exactly where it is going and how to get there. While the plot will not rock anyone to their core, it is an example is effective filmmaking for the strict purpose of producing some thrills.
— Edgar Chaput