The Narrow Margin
The Narrow Margin is never not on edge. Clocking at only seventy-one minutes, it’s a tight B-movie thriller in which its characters don’t do much more besides put themselves into dangerous situations to our sweaty amusement. Violence pervades the ambience with the unpredictable havoc of Wait Until Dark; the inky black-and-white photography, which frequently dresses the cast in shadows that swallow them whole, supplements the film’s seasoned fixings of suspenseful, ringing uncertainty.
It’s a defining film noir good enough to have caused several serious cinephiles to dub it as the finest B-movie ever made. With its juicily tart dialogue, cogent performances, and ravishingly discharged plot, it’s difficult to disagree with the exclamation, however melodramatic it is in its essence. Because this is a no-budgeter that defines the oft impossible achievement of overcoming fiscal boundaries; The Narrow Margin is aware of its limitations, but uses them in a way that hides monetary setbacks. An impassioned spotlight is instead put onto its most prestigious characteristics (most notably its crackling screenplay, which shockingly received an Oscar nomination, and its brave lacking of a soundtrack), and we’re left with a thriller so self-assured that we’d be unwise to expect it to be anything less than a minor masterpiece.
It’s so taut that only staunch admiration can be elicited. A hard-boiled Charles McGraw stars as Det. Sgt. Walter Brown, a Los Angeles based police detective assigned to protect Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor), a gangster’s widow needed in court to testify before a grand jury. Already scornful of his person of interest, whom he dislikes for her blatant immorality, things are only made worse when his partner (Don Beddoe), a father figure of sorts, is gunned down by enemy toughs who were likely aiming for Frankie. The train ride from Chicago to L.A. isn’t going to be a pleasant one.
But unpleasantness doesn’t just stem from the twosome’s rocky relationship: also tense is the obvious presence of gangsters on the train itself. Given the knowledge that Neall is on board without actually being presented with the crucial information as to what her mug looks like, a rabid search for the woman kicks off almost immediately. Ensuing is a deadly game of cat and mouse that tests Brown’s abilities as a dedicated enforcer of the law.
Without a standard running time to bloat its electric atmosphere, The Narrow Margin is so brawny, so impervious to slack, that it seems incapable of losing steam as the well-oiled machine that it is. A tough beast that snarls at anything even resembling sentimentality, it’s an archetypally grizzled pulse pounder that stands next to Gun Crazy and The Set-Up as the best B-noirs that ever came out of the Golden Age’s money minded womb.
RKO’s studio chief at the time, Howard Hughes, nearly had The Narrow Margin released with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell headlining, working as a star vehicle for the production company's biggest names. But it’s a good thing that the movie was kept a starless thriller of maximum efficiency: its no bullshit, no glamour attitude makes it all the more cutting. It’s essential for any fans of the film noir genre, but it’s also essential for audiences seeking out the best moments within the early decades of Hollywood’s century. This isn’t studio fodder: it’s art. A-