Friday, March 31, 2023

Favorite Stars in B Movies Blogathon: The Narrow Margin (1952)

The Narrow Margin (1952, directed by Richard Fleischer) was completed in 1950, but wasn't released by RKO Pictures for another two years. When a studio shelves a film for two years before releasing it, that ordinarily means that the powers that be have no faith in the project or that the studio is going through some kind of transition at the top. It's almost never a good thing for the picture and it is often an omen portending a financial or critical disaster. In the case of The Narrow Margin, however, RKO and its then-owner Howard Hughes felt that the film was too good to waste on non-bankable actors. Hughes wanted to remake the film with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. At some point, he had the film delivered to his private screening room where according to legend, he promptly forgot about it. And there it sat for two years. When it finally saw release, it proved to be RKO's biggest money-maker of 1952, a turn of events enhanced by the film's minuscule $230,000 budget, which was small even by 1950 standards. Hughes's instinct about the film was correct. It was good. Damned good. While it might have worked just fine in color with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, it's hard to imagine such a film bettering Fleischer's film or improving on the hard-boiled performances of perennial B-movie actors Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor. This was born to be a pulpy B-feature, one of the best of its kind, and it needed those pulp actors to give it just the right flavor.

The story finds hardboiled Detective Sgt. Walter Brown escorting a deceased gangster's wife, Frankie Neall, by train from Chicago to Los Angeles in order to testify against her husband's associates. A cadre of hit men is on their trail to silence her before she can testify, and Brown must keep Frankie alive against a series of assassination attempts, the first of which takes out Brown's partner and friend. Complicating things for the assassins is the fact that nobody knows what Frankie Neall looks like, which Brown uses to maneuver her to safety. Unfortunately for Brown, this results in the assassins watching him instead in order to smoke her out. Once on the train, Brown secures Frankie in a stateroom that he conrives to have listed as empty, as having been designated for his deceased partner. To further throw off the scent, he mingles with the rest of the passengers. In particular, he strikes up a friendship with a woman, Ann Sinclair, and her son. She is a polar opposite of Frankie. Wholesome, the very model of upstanding womanhood. Brown falls for her a bit. But things aren't as they seem, and the endgame sees Brown confronted with his ideals and prejudices.

Although I probably saw her in other things when I was a kid--she was in a TON of stuff, not excluding sci-fi films--the first time I remember seeing Marie Windsor in a film was in Tobe Hooper's TV mini-series, 'Salem's Lot, in which she was partnered with fellow noir regular Elisha Cook, Jr. I like to think that Hooper transplanted their characters from The Killing into Stephen King-land, Maine. After 'Salem's Lot, I noticed Windsor all the time in B-movies, whether noir, melodrama, sci-fi, what have you. It's not for nothing that she was sometimes called the Queen of the B's. She had a long and prolific career on the fringes of stardom. If ever there was a movie that would make Windsor a star, it was The Narrow Margin. The part of Frankie Neall is a distillation of the hard-boiled gun moll from a hundred other crime movies into a kind of archetype. The film weaponizes this. Even before he sees her, Brown has an idea of her. He bets his partner five bucks: "I don't have to wonder (what she looks like). I know...A dish...sixty cent special: cheap, flashy, strictly poison under the gravy." And just like that, the film has conjured her. Then, when Marie Windsor appears on screen, she's the very picture of this mental image. She's a multi-purpose femme fatale in the film, one whose appearance and role in the plot are mercurial throughout, all the way until the end, when the film gives the audience the blow-off. It's all sleight of hand. It's the set-up of the three-card monte dealer, encouraging the marks to look for what the dealer wants them to look at while his other hand is doing something else entirely. The Narrow Margin is an epistemological noir, one where reality is untrustworthy, and Windsor is the chimera at its center. Jorge Luis Borges once wrote of another more famous film that it was a "chaos of appearances;" that description applies here, too, both to the film and to its leading lady. Maybe that's why The Narrow Margin didn't make Windsor a bigger star. Her persona in the film is slippery, and varies from scene to scene. It works marvelously for a film that's an elaborate con. Other filmmakers maybe had a failure of imagination with her. More's the pity.

This was Richard Fleischer's second film with Charles McGraw. McGraw played the gruff lead detective in the director's Armored Car Robbery, a hard-nosed character that bears a familial resemblance to Sgt. Brown in The Narrow Margin. McGraw appeared in a lot of crime films on both sides of the law, in a career that was a parallel to Marie Windsor's career. I first saw him in The Night Stalker on television when I was a kid (so far as I can remember), but he fit into the genres television preferred like he was made for them, Westerns and crime shows mostly, so I may have seen him elsewhere. He had an unexpected turn as Rick Blaine in a short-lived television version of Casablanca, too, which turned out as well as that sounds. Unlike Windsor's character, McGraw's Det. Sgt. Brown is fixed in stone, begging only an actor who fits the type. If, as I've said, The Narrow Margin is a con game, then Brown ranks first among the marks, and McGraw plays it perfectly, as a man who is too rigid to know he's been had until the game is nearly over. That said, if Windsor is the queen of spades, then McGraw is the hands shuffling the deck. Most of the film watches him as he thinks his way through the problems their pursuers present. He may be a mark, but he's not a fool. The film lets him show a keen head for tactics.

The third part of the equation is Jacqueline White, who plays Ann Sullivan. Like Frankie Neall, Ann is an archetype. She's the wholesome mother, the platonic ideal of 1950s womanhood, and the character that is the starkest contrast to Brown's comments about a gangster's wife being a 60 cent plate. She's ultimately a strong rebuke to the unreflected misogyny Brown feels throughout the film. Ann is the film's wild card, an ambiguous figure whose true role doesn't come out until the very end of the film and upends everything the marks have been fed about the plot. This was White's last film role, after which she married and moved to Wyoming.

Richard Fleischer's early films noir were models of low-budget efficiency. There is no fat on this film--it runs a bare 71 minutes--nor any fat on the lead performances. It's a masterpiece of narrative economy. It had to be. Filmmaking on this scale required efficiency and this production narrows its gaze down to the train sets for most of its running time. It has an Aristotelian sense of dramatic unity. What's amazing about the film is that it manages to delineate its important characters without rushing through it, it gets to all its important plot points and wastes no time on anything that doesn't advance the narrative, and feels completely unhurried about it all. It risks being a utilitarian piece of filmmaking, but for the tools of the noir idiom. The alternating areas of black and white provided by the train sets gives the film a visual richness and poetry that doesn't interfere with its narrative drive, while its dialogue layers the patois of hard boiled over its narrative impulse. The scenes between McGraw and Windsor in particular have a hard boiled theatricality to them, with McGraw's lines delivered in a voice that sounds like a bearing going bad and Windsor's etched on the film's soundtrack in acid. There's a hard discipline to the way this film's dialogue serves the plot. Both the text of the script and the delivery of the performances provide multiple layers. They pull double and triple duty over and above their need to move the story forward creating a density of information about both the characters and the plot that translates to narrative concision. Nothing is wasted. That's the film as a whole, too, with scenes following scenes in a tight succession that reveals new information to the audience with every transition. It's a marvel of filmmaking precision. It's no wonder Fleischer graduated to A pictures after this one, hired by Walt Disney of all people in spite of his family's pedigree as rival animators.

In addition to its financial success, The Narrow Margin accomplished the rare feat of garnering an Academy Award nomination for its screen story. Such nominations from b-movies are vanishingly rare and one presumes that it happened at all because of the film's outsized box office. Oscar loves a rags to riches story, after all. Screenwriter Earl Felton lost the award to the team of writers behind De Mille's The Greatest Show on Earth, so it's a moral victory. Seventy years later it's as plain as the nose on your face that The Narrow Margin was the best film in its category. Decades later, long after RKO went the way of the dinosaurs, The Narrow Margin got its remake, a film that shows that Hughes was dead wrong to want more than what the film provided. The remake (as "Narrow Margin" without the definite article at the start) had A-list actors and a budget beyond the original's dreams of avarice, but it could not buy one iota of the cinematic moxie of its forebearer. Gene Hackman isn't a bad choice for the lead, but Anne Archer was never a 60-cent plate of anything. It played the notes but missed the music. It mostly reaffirmed the fact that The Narrow Margin in its original incarnation was a pretty damned good movie to start with.

This piece was written as part of the "Favorite Stars in B Movies" Blogathon. The ringleader for this blogathon is Brian at Films From Beyond, who kindly invited me to participate out of the blue. Boy, howdy did I want to write about The Narrow Margin for this event, because I can't imagine a better example of the stars of a b-movie elevating a film to the level of a classic. Check out the event page for more posts about other B-movie actors in films great and small.

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Rich said...

Marie Windsor reminds me of another noir bad girl, Lizabeth Scott—you know when you first see her in a movie, she’s gonna be bad news for the protagonist. I remember the NARROW MARGIN remake, but I never saw the original. Your description makes it sound very enticing.

Mike's Movie Room said...

This is an excellent review! I love this film so much. Even though Robert Mitchum is my favorite actor, I wouldn't replace Charles McGraw. And Marie Windsor is perfect. I haven't seen this in quite a while. Time to take it down from the shelf and get back on that train.

John L. Harmon said...

I've never heard of the narrow margin, but I'm definitely curious to see it now. From your description, I think I will definitely skip the remake.

Silver Screenings said...

Love, absolutely love your review. It's smart and insightful, and you'e got me thinking I need to see this film again TONIGHT.

Terence Towles Canote said...

It always shocked me that The Narrow Margin sat for two years. While I Can understand Howard Hughes wanting to remake it with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, I don't see how even they could have been as good as Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor. It is a remarkable film, and one that I really don't think could have been improved upon. I think "chaos of appearances" describes it quite well!

grandoldmovies said...

You're right, this film is SOOOO good, it's even hard to think of it as a B movie, it's so well done. Interesting point about Marie Windsor and her character, how the woman's "slippery" persona made her too elusive for Windsor to gain stardom via this role. But she and Charles McGraw crackle together onscreen. In its own way, The Narrow Margin is about as perfect a film as there is !

Brian Schuck said...

Thank you for this wonderful tribute to Windsor and McGraw and the Narrow Margin! I love your turns of phrase, which themselves seem like they could have been lifted from a classic noir: "...Anne Archer was never a 60-cent plate of anything. It played the notes but missed the music." I had forgotten about the remake. Fans always cringe at big effects, big budget remakes of classics, but they do serve the purpose of reminding us what was so good about the original.

I was also intrigued by the original production's history. The gods smiled down on The Narrow Margin, somehow distracted Hughes, and it emerged unscathed. How miraculous is that? :-)

MichaelWDenney said...

Great article about an intriguing sounding film. The backstory about how it was made is very interesting. Robert Mitchum in the lead would have been something to see but I agree that you shouldn't try to mess with a good thing when you have it. It is probably a good thing that Hughes forgot about this film for two years. Otherwise, this version may have never seen the light of day.

P.S. Love the nom de plume. Two of my favourite films (I assume).

Rebecca Deniston said...

Great review! Marie Windsor looks a little bit like Loretta Young.