Format: Noir Alley on TCM - DVR
Holy smokes I love this movie.
The Narrow Margin (1952) was finally featured on Noir Alley last week and host Eddie Muller was able to talk a bit about Marie Windsor and the RKO/ Howard Hughes issues that plagued post-production. If we're lucky, Noir Alley will release box sets of BluRays from TCM that include all of Muller's commentary. It's priceless and a Masters Class in Film History.
This movie re-teams Charles McGraw and director Richard Fleischer of Armored Car Robbery, this time with McGraw transporting a mobster's widow (Windsor) from Chicago to Los Angeles where she'll testify to the D.A. and provide him with a list of crooks and mobsters. It seems crooks and mobsters frown on this idea, and so decide to take her out and retrieve the letter. McGraw and his partner are assigned to the widow to protect her - counting on the fact that the LA-based mobsters have no idea what she looks like.
But before they can even leave the building where she's stashed in Chicago, a hitman takes out McGraw's partner, and then it's a mad dash to the train where the mobsters pursue them and board as passengers.
In a bit of confusion, the gangsters mistake a different passenger travelling with her son and nurse for the widow, putting them in incredible jeopardy.
I'm not an aficionado of train movies or murder on train movies, but the enclosed, mobile environs makes for a terrific setting for a noir thriller. A good 75% of the movie (or more) takes place on the train as McGraw waits out the multi-day ride with the anonymity of travel working for and against him - sure, they don't know who Windsor is or what she looks like, but he can't be sure of who is who, and has to play it cool.
The cramped setting provides a certain claustrophobia, and if you're familiar with fight scenes on trains in films like From Russia With Love, then you know how these things tend to play out as grown men hurl themselves back and forth in a space barely larger than a telephone booth (see, kids, there used to be these booths and phones were attached to walls, and someone named "Midge" or "Dot" would tell you how many coins to drop in the slot, and...). A favorite bit of mine in the film is a portly passenger named Jennings who keeps gumming up McGraw's attempts to move back and forth in the corridors.
In a fairly brief hours and 20 run-time, the film gets in and gets out, does everything you would hope it might and way more, and is a white-knuckle ride right to the "The End" title card. There's no fat on the movie - even the seemingly extraneously character bits wind up paying off in spades.
I have a lot of reasons I like this movie. It's natural tension, the character work and sharp dialog. Heck, the bit where McGraw is an honest cop in a world full of cops taking bribes. But you can't talk about this movie without gushing about Marie Windsor as Mrs. Neil, the widow.
Windsor would go on to be known as The Queen of the B's and she appears in a lot of noir, Abbott and Costello meeting the Mummy and Cat-Women from Outer Space. She was a Utah beauty queen, and she had the "bad girl" thing down pat. And it is nothing I am ever going to complain about.
She may not be a Doris Day type beauty, and apparently her bad-girl looks got her type cast and took her career a direction she wasn't planning to go, but those roles also immortalized her for noir fans and B-movie nerds.
McGraw's post-war raw male stoicism is barely in check, the tougher than leather bit maybe a bit stale even for his partner, when Windsor shows up not giving a good goddamn about his persona, herself a spitfire full of rapid patter and ego. She's exactly the low-class dame McGraw had predicted and then some, not the person he's thrilled to be protecting in the first place.
It's the sort of thing that would irritating and graceless in real life, but in a film - it's sexy as all hell, and you're sort of cheering for Windsor in every interaction with the square cop who is trying to keep up with her and hasn't got the chops for it.
In the afterward to the showing, Eddie Muller actually pulled a thought right out of my head. I was honestly shocked he voiced the thought I'd just had. (SPOILERS - skip this and do not read if you plan to ever watch the movie: but we should have seen McGraw watch Windsor carried off the train. A single mistake in an otherwise impeccable film.)
Anyway, here's to Marie Windsor, who makes being a pain in the ass seem like a really good idea.