Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Narrow Margin

TCM is airing one of my favorite low-budget movies, The Narrow Margin, as part of its "Riding the Rails" salute to films on trains, this April 9 at 8:00 PM ET. I've commented several times in the past about how I believe a good story is just as important to a good movie as effects or A-list stars, and The Narrow Margin might be one of the best movies to show this point.

Charles McGraw, a staple of B noirs and mysteries, stars as a policeman who's part of a pair taking a mobster's wife (played by the slightly better-known Marie Windsor) from Chicago to Los Angeles by train so that she can testify before a grand jury. She's a widow, because the Mob have already gotten to her husband, knowing that he was about to testify. Naturally, everybody is afraid that the same fate may befall her, so they take great pains to ensure nobody knows her identity. Of course, this being a Hollywood movie, things immediately go wrong, as a shootout at her run-down apartment kills McGraw's partner before they can even board the train. In part because of this, Windsor takes a severe dislike to McGraw, making life difficult for him at every turn.

It's on the train where the story really picks up steam, no pun intended. Danger lurks in every compartment, as each of the people our cop meets may be out to kill his witness -- or may be one of the good guys. Lightening the proceedings is a bratty little kid who seems to have a knack of always being where he shouldn't be. To recreate the atmosphere of being aboard a train, the director had extremely cramped sets built (only a few establishing shots were filmed aboard actual trains), and used handheld camera that would shake, much the same way that a cross-country train is not the smoothest of rides. Sure, it's a low-cost gimmick, but it works and makes The Narrow Margin an exciting ride all the way until the train reaches the end of the line.

The Narrow Margin isn't the first movie to follow this formula; Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes explored much of the same ground 15 years earlier, and the opening sequences of another movie airing on TCM on April 9, Berlin Express, are also reminiscent of The Narrow Margin. But The Narrow Margin presents interesting and believable characters, along with a gritty reality that maintains a fast-paced exciement throughout. It's well worth watching, even 55 years after being made.

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