Monday, June 07, 2010

1952, Year in Review: The Narrow Margin

The Narrow Margin
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Starring: Charles McGraw, Jacqueline White, Marie Windsor, Gordon Gebert
Grade: C

In nearly every sense Richard Fleischer's thriller, "The Narrow Margin" is a poor man's Hitchcock, and when discussing it one can't help but draw comparisons to 1938's The Lady Vanishes, given that both films are set on board a train.
It has all the makings of a great film, beginning with Mrs. Frankie Neal (a fiery Marie Windsor) and her fierce altercation with police. As the wife of a late gangster she has unwillingly agreed to testify against his shady assailants, but the harrowing murder of one of the men employed to escort her across the country puts the case (and her life) in danger. The planned train journey from Chicago to LA goes ahead, and Detective Seargeant Walter Brown (McGraw) has the unenviable job of being her bodyguard. The journey is further complicated, however, when Walter becomes drawn to one of the female passengers and her feisty son, and unwillingly makes them a target.

While Vanishes set a huge precedent for thrillers that could be funny, witty, breezy and deadly all-in-one, "The Narrow Margin" is less of a fledgling success than a pale imitation. There's little doubt that the film contains a substantial amount of intrigue, but as a 71-minute exercise there is precious little opportunity to flesh out either the characters or the narrative. It's a relatively tight little story, but one that can't ingratiate itself from better, similarly-plotted films, and remains rather slight in its approach to what had promised to be a much pulpier setup. The "narrow margins" in question are also scarce, as Fleischer is content to settle for faceless, standard, wandering villains to demonstrate the danger that beholds Mrs. Neal, and doesn't create many situations where we feel she's legitimately in danger enough to care. There are elements to engage with but these rarely feel dynamic, and as the film exhibits many of the hallmarks of a successful compact thriller (general mistrust, near-misses, a late twist) it neglects any real atmospheric flair and lacks the dolorous fervour essential to this form of genre picture.

Mrs. Neal as a character develops more importance as the film goes on so that the late deception of what or who she is doesn't come completely out-of-the-blue. Many harp on about Hitchcock's decision to show a flashback of an event in his 1950 film Stage Fright which proves never to have occurred, despite there being no attempt to allude to its authenticity at the time. Fleischer isn't quite on that level of directorial deceit, but while I appreciate how Hitchcock's decision affects our perceptions of the characters to valuable lengths, "The Narrow Margin" doesn't have any real desire to use its twist beyond effect, and this narrative shift is the only one that feels in any way a surprise.

"The Narrow Margin" is an easy watch, primarily because nobody feels overly concerned with bringing something new into an overly familiar arrangement. It's a shame because  the film's Oscar-nominated story and relative cult B-movie status hint at more ambition, grit, and bite than is on display. As light lunches go, "The Narrow Margin" is perfect to digest, but the promise it generates heavily outweighs the reward, and the result is sadly a stingy, forgettable production.

Academy Awards

Best Writing, Motion Picture Story

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