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Trains have always served filmmakers as a terrific background for suspense thrillers. There's no greater testament to this than the fact that trains play an important part in five films of the undisputed master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Strangers on a Train (1951) and North by Northwest (1959). It wouldn't be difficult to come up with a list of great movies whose most exciting sequences take place entirely or partly on a train, but most moviegoers would be likely to overlook one of the best uses of the location, the RKO thriller The Narrow Margin (1952).
Too bad the film is largely forgotten today, because not only is it a first-rate example of the post-war film noir genre, it also takes place almost entirely on a train. Director Richard Fleischer exploits the narrow corridors and cramped compartments to maximum effect, heightening the sense of claustrophobia and the paranoia of being trapped without an exit. What's more, Fleischer uses the sound of the moving train continuously in the background which generates a certain driving tension. The train interiors were all shot on an RKO soundstage while exterior station scenes were lensed in Los Angeles' Union Station; all in an amazingly short 15-day schedule.
Within this confined setting, two detectives escort a racketeer's widow from Chicago to Los Angeles where she will give testimony to a grand jury. But she's being pursued by three hit men determined to shut her up permanently. The big problem for the killers is that they have never seen the woman, a set-up for a vicious game of cat and mouse where (without giving too much away) nothing is quite what it seems. Even the cops come to realize they have been left in the dark. The suspense and wild twists resulting from this clever plot made The Narrow Margin one of RKO's most profitable B-movies; it turned a huge profit for the studio, considering the picture's meager budget (It was reported to be somewhere between $188,000 and $230,000).
Much of the success can be attributed to Fleischer's deft handling of the material and his appropriately hard-boiled cast. Fleischer has become known for large-scale action epics, including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), The Vikings (1958) and Tora! Tora! Tora! 1970). But he was equally at home in taut thrillers like Violent Saturday (1955), Compulsion (1959) and The Boston Strangler (1968). The son of cartoonist Max Fleischer (who also "fathered" Popeye and Betty Boop), he began his career in the short subjects department at RKO, eventually graduating to features directing tearjerkers with child actress Sharyn Moffet (My Pal, Wolf, 1944). But it was with The Narrow Margin and an earlier suspense film, Trapped (1949), that Fleischer really made his mark.
A certain degree of the film's popularity should also be credited to its female star, Marie Windsor, the B-movie queen with the killer body and bedroom eyes. A former Miss Utah and model for cheesecake illustrator Vargas, Windsor (she died in December 2000) was an intelligent, highly personable woman most often cast as hard-as-nails dames (she was memorable as the destructive floozy in Stanley Kubrick's 1956 crime drama The Killing). But she didn't really mind the typecasting that marked her career. In a 1992 interview with Filmfax magazine, Windsor said she always wanted to play "romantic, dramatic and sensitive women," but her height (5'9") and sexy looks had worked against her. "However, I've always enjoyed my work so much that I like doing anything," she said. "Playing heavies is fun, and the parts usually have meatier dialogue to chew on." Her role in this film as the gangland widow with a few secrets of her own was one of the best of her career.
The Narrow Margin was remade under the same title in 1990 with Gene Hackman and Anne Archer. Although ingenious and suspenseful in its own right, many of the plot details were substantially changed, and the action was opened up to set more of the story outside the train.
Director: Richard Fleischer
Producer: Stanley Rubin
Screenplay: Earl Felton, Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard (story)
Cinematography: George E. Diskant
Editing: Robert Swink
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Jack Okey
Cast: Marie Windsor (Mrs. Neall), Charles McGraw (Detective Sgt. Walter Brown), Don Beddoe (Detective Sgt. Gus Forbes), Queenie Leonard (Mrs. Troll), David Clarke (Kemp).
BW-72m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon