Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Narrow Margin (1952) Noir Masterpiece

(originally published SLWB January 30, 2013 and reedited and republished 9/2/2017)

Today must have been the upmteenth time I've watched the Narrow Margin. This go round was because of the image extortion racket by Photobucket. I had to recapture quite a few lost frames.

During the process of both enjoying the film and stopping the action I realized two things. The first was the complete title sequence of the film, from the end of the RKO radio tower logo on the spinning globe to the end of the credits lasted exactly one minute. The second was how effective Black & White was for highlighting angels in the set design, skewed camera angles, POV angles, and angles of light and shadows. These angles symbolically represent edges. Flat two dimensional angles can't kill you but edges can. Edges are dangerous. You can fall off an edge. Walk into traffic from the edge of a shoulder. Stop a pointed knife edge. The way a film can emphasize danger is by reinforcing the signs. While Black & White tends to enhance edges. Color cinematography camouflages edges. With Black & White the amount of information coming at you from the screen is simplified and direct, with Color you have a visual cacophony of noise, this makes it harder to get this particular aspect of Neo Noirs right, it takes a lot of correct artistic choices to achieve the right edge effects equal to Black & White when shooting in Color.

Title Sequence

Det. Sgt. Walter Brown (McGraw) center and Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes (Beddoe)

The Narrow Margin (1952) Director: Richard Fleischer (The Clay Pigeon (1949), Trapped (1949), Violent Saturday (1955).  ), Writers: Earl Felton (screenplay), Martin Goldsmith (story) Jack Leonard (story).  With Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White, Don Beddoe, Gordon Gebert, David Clarke, Peter Virgo, and Paul Maxey. Cinematography by George E. Diskant (Armored Car Robbery (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951), Kansas City Confidential (1952)).

Story: Two LAPD Cops arrive in Chi-Town at Union Station on Central Pacific's 49er. Det. Sgt. Walter Brown (McGraw) and longtime senior partner, Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes (Beddoe) are there  to pick up a friendly witness against corruption in the LA City Government for escort back to LA. The witness is the wife of an LA mobster. There is a one hour turnaround for them to pick up  the witness, Mrs. Frankie Neal (Windsor), get back to the station, and make the Golden West (State) Limited back to LA.

Brown and Forbes grab a cab to a shabby tenement safe-house in a run down neighborhood and pick up Mrs. Neal. On the way the two cops make a $5 bet on the type of woman who would marry a mobster

Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes "Bet you're wondering the same thing I am - what she looks like." 
Walter Brown "I don't have to wonder - I know." 
Walter Brown: I don't have to wonder - I know. 
Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes: Why, that's wonderful, Walter, nobody's seen her but you know what she looks like. What a gift. 
Walter Brown: Aw, come off it, yer just makin' talk. 
Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes: Well, we get there just as fast, talkin'. What about this dame, Mr. Crystal Ball? 
Walter Brown: A dish. 
Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes: What kind of a dish? 
Walter Brown: Sixty-cent special. Cheap, flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy. 
Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes: How do you know all this? 
Walter Brown: Well, what kind of a dame would marry a hood? 
Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes: All kinds.

"All kinds." 
So begins a film with possibly some best hard boiled banter in Film Noir.  If you haven't seen the film there are spoilers below.


When Brown and Forbes enter the tenement and climb the stairs they immediately hear the decadent jazz piece that becomes the sultry Mrs. Neal's leitmotif.  Brown correctly portends that his hunch about Mrs. Neal is right and the initial meeting is a hoot. The whole sequence takes on a whole new subtext upon a second screening of the film once you know that Mrs. Neal is in actuality a decoy undercover (internal affairs) Chicago cop, Sarah Meggs, playing the gangster moll, and more than tough as nails McGraw's equal.

♪ Jazz Music ♫

Brown and Forbes with Chicago PD Detective

Forbes: - What’s the music for, a welcome?
Chicago PD: - You don’t know how welcome…. Hey ( to Meggs) turn that thing off … your escorts here.

Mrs. Neal (aka Meggs)

Windsor's turn as a hard boiled internal investigations cop playing a cheap, coarse, slightly seedy floozie is her tour de force. It's Chicago vs LA  and Windsor steals the scene her large eyes flashing derision.

Meggs (decoy Mrs. Neal) leaves  the jazz spinning,  flips her hair and struts over and give both Brown and Forbes the up and down, as if checking on their packages. Her eyes flashing over Forbes first then Brown.

Chicago PD: - Forbes and Brown from Los Angeles…

Meggs: - How nice, how Los Angeles ( taking a drag and blasting a mushroom cloud of cigarette smoke into Brown’s face)… Sunburn wear off … on the way out?

"Sunburn wear off...  on the way out?"
Mrs. Neal/Meggs totally eviscerates McGraw, Beddoe and LAPD, with cutting one liners. Mrs. Neal/Meggs doubts about her escorts abilities soon play out in a beautifully executed Noir sequence involving a string of pearls where Beddoe is gunned down in a stairwell and McGraw gives chase through a web of backyard clotheslines.

Rushing in a cab back to the station another classic sequence unfolds, McGraw smacks his fist against his thigh:

Meggs: Charley Horse?
McGraw: The one time I let him go first it happened.
Meggs: Forbes?

McGraw: Yea he was getting old and slow... you could put a live bomb in his hand and count ten before he'd drop it. I'll never forgive myself.
Meggs: Well this fine... some protection they send me, an old man who walks right into it, and a weeper.

Meggs reminding McGraw to quit feeling sorry for himself and of the importance of his assignment. 

Meggs: ... How long do you think my luck will last?
McGraw: As long as there's cops like Forbes around to get killed for you.
Meggs: Like you I suppose?
McGraw: Yea like me. 

"like you I suppose"
Meggs obviously getting "moist" looks him over with a wry smile and comes onto him

"well my taste doesn't usually run to cops..."
Meggs: well my taste doesn't usually run to cops... but you may not be such dull company at that.
Mcgraw gives her the cold shoulder.
McGraw: Mrs. Neal we better get one thing straight. You're just a job to me, a COD package to be delivered to the LA Grand Jury and there's no joy in it. I don't like you any more than Forbes did but he got himself murdered for you and maybe I will too. That's what they pay me for. Now do we understand each other?
Meggs:  Relax percy, your shield's untarnished, I've changed my mind.
Meggs leans over and lights her cigarette off of his
Meggs: I wouldn't want any of that nobility to rub off on me.
McGraw: It won't if you keep your distance.
Meggs: All the way to the coast?
McGraw: Poor Forbes.
Meggs: What about poor Forbes?
McGraw: He owed me five bucks.


Kemp (David Clarke) lt. and Yost (Peter Virgo)

Nice rack Marie

McGraw is excellent as Det. Sgt. Walter Brown, he's hard boiled and he tries hard to protect Mrs. Neal but is not as savvy or as cagey as he thinks he is. Eventually and unknowingly Brown exposes the real Mrs. Neal (White) through his attraction to her and her reciprocation while at the same time endangering the decoy Meggs (Windsor). 

The majority of the film takes place upon the RKO "Golden West Limited" set as it rattles and rolls through movie magic very believably towards Los Angeles.  It's a work of Studio/Stage/Special Effects Art, the great design of the various rail car sets, the lighting effects, plus an all immersive sound design. This is all intercut with second unit exterior location material and stock footage that convey the illusion of " the jornada", a road picture on rails. There are not many road pictures as tight as this one just judging it visually and audibly alone. One of my favorites 10/10

My problem with this film is the plot. SPOILERS Why keep Charles McGraw in the dark about the true nature of the journey? And if you are going to run a decoy, why would you put her on the same train with the real girl? Wouldn't it make more sense to send them on, you know, different trains? And why even use a train for the real girl? Send the decoy by train, the real girl by airplane. END SPOILERS Willing suspension of disbelief I can do. Willing lobotomy, no.

I think the answers are all in the subtext, Meggs (Decoy Mrs Neal) is not only a decoy but an internal affairs cop, and she is looking for corruption in LAPD. The initial fact that the "safe house" is already compromized, indicates that the underworld has been tipped off by a mole in LAPD as to the whereabouts of Mrs. Neal and the two main LAPD suspects are Brown and Forbes. If you go with that angle the whole "Mrs. Neal and the list" plotpoint becomes irrelevant and the real plot is corruption investigation in LAPD and who is/are the informer(s).  Like you say "Why keep Charles McGraw in the dark" or why not just mail the list.

Now remember Forbes right at the get go tries to get Meggs (Decoy Mrs Neal) to give him the list. Once Forbes buys it, Meggs goes to work on Brown tempting him in the cab with sex and later on the train with money.

Walter Brown: You're a pretty good judge of crooks, Mrs. Neall; the only place you slip up is with cops. I turned the deal down. 
Mrs. Neall: Then you're a bigger idiot than I thought! When are you going to get it through your square head that this is big business? And we're right in the middle. 
Walter Brown: Meaning you'd like to sell out? 
Mrs. Neall: With pleasure and profit, and so would you. What are the odds if we don't? I sing my song for the grand jury, and spend the rest of my life dodging bullets - -if I'm lucky! - -while you grow old and gray on the police force. Oh, wake up, Brown. This train's headed straight for the cemetery. But there's another one coming along, a gravy train. Let's get on it. 
Walter Brown: Mrs. Neall, I'd like to give you the same answer I gave that hood - but it would mean stepping on your face. 

Other thoughts from IMDb

by persycat IMDb
"When I saw the movie, I took the lady cop to have been in touch with the actual wife (the blonde) and not just following the detectives. So the plot device made perfect sense to me. It is the same thing as in research when they do a DOUBLE BLIND study...neither the subject NOR THE RESEARCHER know who is getting a placebo and who is getting an actual research drug. That way there is no bias from the observer. In this case, it made perfect sense to me that they did not know whether the gangsters knew what she looked like, so they gave her an EXTRA, EXTRA level of protection by having the person the "known" agents excorted be the agent, and the actual "subject" (the blonde) be a totally "uninterested 3rd party." So I don't know, maybe you had to make an extra naive plot leap to make it understandable... but it made sense to me."


by tricksofthetrade  IMDb

I.A.D. is like any other departmental division, they get credit/promotions/glory for collars.

Although you make a good point about the logic of investigating 'the most unbribeable cop in the world', you are not seeing the big picture. The IAD probably KNEW that the mob would be likley to throw bribe money at the sergeant. Even if he was clean, there is a possibility that he would be tempted to take it. The event such a possiblity and high profile arrest would be a career making event for the IAD officer and supervisor who headed the case.

Also they put the real witness on a different train, there would not be a movie. 

My thoughts....  the real plot is LAPD corruption. One of the commentors on IMDb says that he's read that in the original script that Forbes was definitely on the take. The curious actions of Brown on the train also make you wonder about him, if he was truely that stupid or if he was deliberately exposing Meggs to the gangsters.  

Stanley Rubin (SR) What happened with "Narrow Margin" was kind of interesting. We finished the picture in '51. Howard Hughes had taken over the studio. He ran the finished cut, our cut of "Narrow Margin," one midnight, which was rather typical of Mr. Hughes. By the way, I never met him. I did get memos, but never met him in person. Hughes had bought the studio while we were making "Narrow Margin," but later he brought in Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna to head up production at the studio. In any case, Hughes ran the picture, which had gotten very good word of mouth already. I got a memo from Mr. Hughes, saying he thought it was a very good film, but that he wanted to hold it — instead of releasing it when it was due to be released, the memo stated that he wanted to hold it for a while and he wanted me to think about some way to turn "Narrow Margin," which we had shot for under $250,000 and in under 15 days, into an A-picture. Well, there wasn't any way to turn "Narrow Margin" into an A-picture unless you just scrubbed the picture and recast it with A-names and shot it all over again. I communicated that feeling to Mr. Hughes, but he persisted in thinking that there might be some way to turn it into a big picture. And he held it under his arm or in his vault for a year and that's why "Narrow Margin" was released a year, year and a half after it was finished.

Five-O: Was the Hughes cut much different from yours and Fleischer's?
SR: Hughes added at least one additonal heavy. I think Dick Fleischer shot those scenes. I was gone. I was already at Fox. Hughes added one heavy, and then he did another thing which was not smart, it was just an oversight, I guess, on his part and we didn't discover it until one night at Cinematheque at the Egyptian.

They ran "Narrow Margin" and someone asked: 'How come Charlie McGraw and Jacqueline White didn't go to pay their respects to Marie Windsor, who'd been shot and killed in the line of duty?' And I said, of course they stop to see her, before you saw them sneaking off the train to go down the tunnel to get into town. Well, we looked at the picture again and that scene had been removed. That moment we had shot was gone. That was a bad, bad, bad oversight on the part of Mr. Hughes. Nontheless, the picture was a good picture. We were all very proud of it, and people were impressed with the performances, the pace, with the plot turns... The picture was screened by Darryl Zanuck and that motivated Fox to make me an offer to come over there. Dick Fleischer went on to do "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" for Disney. Both of those things came from "Narrow Margin."

Full interview here:

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