The Narrow Margin

January 28, 2012 6 Min Read

Review by: Christopher Bligh

Plot: What’s it about?

For director Richard Fleischer, an complex thriller is a genre that he seemed to be the master at. Whether it was based on a true person (The Boston Strangler) or being in the setting of a human body (Fantastic Voyage) there seem to be a high level of creativity with a little twist or two for good measure. In this case, his color palette went to black and white in 1952 for a thriller set on a moving train getting to and from it’s destination right down to The Narrow Margin.

Two cops (Charles McGraw and Don Beddoe) are assigned one night to escort the wife of a gangster (Marie Windsor) to testify before a grand jury. Before they’re able to take two steps, one of the cops is killed and the other leads this wife to travel on a moving train where most have identified this cop but not many know what the gangster’s wife looks like.

In a film that could’ve been easily named Twists on a Rail, The Narrow Margin has just that and fills in enough information to get everything going in its very short time frame. There’s always something happening and it advances the plot nicely as well as gives a sense that once aboard this train, the audience has no idea which direction this film goes. The cast does a fine job in the smallest circumstances or the biggest dilemmas especially Charles McGraw (who looks like a combination of Richard Widmark and Patrick MacGoohan who’ve been part of their own thrillers on a rail with Murder on the Orient Express and Silver Streak)

With many of Richard Fleischer’s films, there is always some kind of innovation whether its modern day special effects or the use of split screen. Here in this film, director Fleischer through many scenes opts for a handheld look aboard the train before the widescreen processes giving a realistic touch to the claustrophobic manuevers on a moving train.

Another good choice is the minimal approach of music letting the film play on without an extra element of manipulation of the audience. Although it’s not a negative tool, here’s one film (like The Boston Strangler and The China Syndrome) that is effective without it.

With it’s quick pace and blink and you’ll miss it mood, The Narrow Margin set a standard for many rail thrillers to come in future years and shows many decades later that a film can withstand time without losing its touch without all the future film advancements.

Video: How does it look?

Once again, a black and white film associated with Warner is given a solid transfer treatment with the blacks and whites given a very clean print but not without it’s share of flaws. There is occasional white debris and a line or two every once and a while but nothing too distracting from the overall visual quality. Watching the film and the theatrical trailer, the audience can see for themselves the difference in before and after and how well a job Warner has done giving a little more clarity for this black and white film.

Audio: How does it sound?

The Dolby Digital Mono track on this feature does the best it can considering the age of the track and it keeps one of the best things about this film intact. The sounds of the train (which start the picture off) from the whistle to the chug-a-chugs. It’s not THX quality up to par with today’s films but it’s effective enough throughout as the dialogue comes out clear and the effects surround most of the channels in it’s minimalistic approach without being too flashy.

Supplements: What are the extras?

There are few extras on The Narrow Margin and it’s starts with a commentary by director William Friedkin with little audio inclusions from time to time by director Richard Fleischer. It covers a lot of the making, the viewing and the casting of the film along with getting down some of the generalistics of the genre known as “Film Noir”. Although it sometimes gets slightly redundant and self-descriptory, it never bores and Friedkin and Fleischer do a wonderful job with commentating and William isn’t afraid (and shouldn’t be) to show this film citing some influence with his future work. It’s not a bad thing at all and it’s a very good listen.

Last, there is a spoiler filled (standard in those days) theatrical trailer with the big words of the 40s and 50s and a few alternate takes.

The Narrow Margin DVD proves a lot can be filled in a short running time thanks to some solid black and white filmmaking, very well told storytelling and a very nice commentary track by two directorial veterans coming well recommended.

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