The Narrow Margin is comprised of tight and lean drama where every bit of film is used judiciously. This should rightfully earn it respect as one of the preeminent shoestring budget films of all time within any genre.
Because it’s easy to admire films that do a fine job with a plethora of resources and financial capital but what about those pictures working with very little? It seems like concocting something special with limited resources should be considered even more impressive. If you follow this logic, The Narrow Margin is an unrivaled success — a micro-budget masterpiece — that does a great deal to separate itself from the pack of lesser B-grade crime pictures.
Richard Fleischer gets lost among the big-named directors tagged to the big-named productions but when it came to small pictures he made some pretty decent ones and The Narrow Margin just might be one of the finest B pictures, period. But I think I already said that. Still, it’s worth saying twice.
If we had anything close to a star it would be Charles McGraw as a cop named Brown who has been assigned a case along with his veteran partner (Don Beddoe), an assignement neither one of them particularly relishes. They’ve been burdened with the task of protecting the widow (Marie Windsor) of a notorious gangster who has agreed to be the key witness before a grand jury.
It’s an extremely dangerous proposition as there’s a whole network of syndicate members who don’t want their names to get out. They’re ready to stop this mystery dame at any cost and by any means necessary.
The opening lines of dialogue come off as idle patter but they set up the entire scenario as the two policemen get ready to pick up the woman who will cause immense complication in their professional lives.
It’s a simple question really: What kind of woman would marry a gangster? Meanwhile, there’s a tension in the air and conflict pervading the film. Every waking minute is blessed with an air of constant confusion. Identities of everyone are all but in question. We don’t quite know what’s going on. We’re in the same place as the cops and that’s the key.
What follows is an astonishingly intense and immersive storyline that has no right to be either of those things. Still, it’s an undeniable fact. Faceless criminals in fur-lined coats lurk in the shadows ready to fill men full of lead. Tails loiter ominously at train stations for their mark. Men snoop around train cars trying to find out secrets. Lives are constantly in jeopardy. There’s not a moments peace for the chronically paranoid cops or the audience.
The majority of the picture takes place aboard a train bound for Los Angeles with the danger being crammed into a limited space with good guys and bad guys constantly trying to evade and outwit each other. They all vie for the upper hand in this continuously see-sawing game of cat and mouse. Because in simple terms that’s what it is. A cinematic game of cat and mouse.
But The Narrow Margin proves to be a fine train noir for the contours it develops to help strengthen this basic premise. It’s a rumbling ride complete with a fat man to stop up all the passageways, acerbic dames, and suspicious young boys wary of train robbers. It has character beyond a rudimentary crime film and that’s immeasurably difficult to convey in 73 minutes of celluloid. But Earl Felton’s script manages this near impossible feat.
For other films, the limited space would cause the action to become stagnant even tepid whereas, in this picture, those precise elements are turned on their heads as a true advantage. Though the film is starkly different, the original Alien (1979) similarly used consolidated space to hike the tension to uncomfortable heights. You get the same sense here.
But the great films also aren’t completely straightforward. Their rhythms might look familiar but they play against our preconceived expectations, thus allowing us to enjoy their bits of intrigue and the added payoffs they’re able to deliver. However, whether are not you’re able to predict everything that gets thrown at you is beside the point because the true satisfaction comes in the overall rush of the experience. This one is a gem, a diamond pulverized under filth and grime only to come out scintillating. Enjoy it for what it is.