Today’s movie is The Narrow Margin (1952). This is a wonderful Film Noir. The majority of the movie was shot within the confines of a set the size of a train. The claustrophobic nature of the set is highlight by face to face meetings and blocked corridors by large humans. This film was held up for two years because RKO director wanted the movie to be reshot with two bigger stars.
Director Richard Fleischer did a great job on what may the Film Noir that defines all of the elements. This may be the classic example of a Film Noir. In most parts of the film where you would expect music, you are served train noises instead. The only actual jazz comes from Mrs. Neall’s (Marie Windsor) phonograph.
New York Times film critic Howard Thompson said of this movie:
Using a small cast of comparative unknowns, headed by Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor and Jacqueline White, this inexpensive Stanley Rubin production for R.K.O. is almost a model of electric tension that, at least technically, nudges some of the screen’s thriller milestones. Crisply performed and written and directed by Earl Felton and Richard Fleischer with tingling economy, this unpretentious offering should glue anyone to the edge of his seat and prove, once and for all, that a little can be made to count for a lot. 
Charles McGraw played bitter and gruff Det. Sgt. Walter Brown. I mentioned McGraw in Episode 93 – Brute Force (1947), but I didn’t really talk about him, so I will do that here. McGraw was born in 1914 in Iowa. This gravel-voiced tough guy began acting in 1942. His first big role was in The Killers (1946). Some of his films include Brute Force (1947), Armored Car Robbery (1950), The Narrow Margin (1952), The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), Towards the Unknown (1956), Kirk Douglas‘ gladiator trainer in Spartacus (1960), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Hang ‘em High (1968), Tell Them Wille Boy is Here (1969), Johnny Got His Gun (1971), A Boy and His Dog (1975), and Twlight’s Last Gleaming (1977). Oddly and sadly he died in 1980 following a fall through a glass shower door.
Marie Windsor played mob wife, Mrs. Frankie Neall. Windsor was born in 1919 in Utah. Windsor attended BYU and naturally she was a Miss Utah. Later she studied for the stage under Bella’s mother, Maria Ouspenskaya. She began her film career in 1941. She picked up bit parts during the war years. At 5-foot 9-inches she was considered to be too tall and too sexy to be a leading lady in A-films. Eddie Muller says she was the queen of the B movies. Windsor began getting second leads in better films and was in a number of westerns. Her greatest impact was in Film Noir. Her Film Noir films include Force of Evil (1948), Hellfire (1949), The Narrow Margin (1952), City That Never Sleeps (1953), No Man’s Woman (1955), and The Killing (1956). So, you don’t think she was a stiff, she was also in Cat-Women of the Moon (1953), Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), and the heavily cast The Story of Mankind (1957).
Windsor finished her career with a lot of television. She was also the director of the Screen Actors Guild for 25 years. Windsor died in 2000.
Jacqueline White played train traveler Ann Sinclair. White was born in 1922 in LA. White began her film career in 1942. Originally signed with MGM, this actress was not put to good use. She did appear in A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). When she switched to RKO, she eventually got better films. The best two were Film Noir films: Crossfire (1947) and The Narrow Margin (1952). White retired from film in 1950.
Paul Maxey played fat man on the train Sam Jennings. Maxey was born in Illinois in 1907. Maxey is only known for a few films which include Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), The Narrow Margin (1952), and The People’s Choice (1955). He died in 1963 at a relatively young age.
Peter Brocco played gangster Vincent Yost. Brocco, with his hawkish looks, was the Lee Van Cleef of his era. Brocco was born in Pennsylvania in 1903. He began studying theology but ended up working in stock theater. He was part of the Federal Theater Group and began working in film in 1932. He worked in Europe in the post-war years returning to America in 1947. Brocco was in a large number of television shows and was particularly adept in the sci-fi genre. His movies include Black Hand (1950), The Narrow Margin (1952), the utterly horrible Big Jim McLain (1952), Spartacus (1960), Papillon (1973), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Throw Momma from the Train (1987), and The War of the Roses (1989). He died in 1992.
Los Angeles police detectives Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) arrive in Chicago by train. They tell the porter that they will be heading back to LA on a train leaving in less than an hour. The two cops jump into a taxi and head out to Water Street. Always a bad part of town. They begin to talk about the lady they are there to pick-up. Brown says any dame that would marry a gangster would be a dish, “60-cent special. Cheap, Flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy.” The taxi arrives at the house, where they are to pick up the mob wife, but no one knows what she looks like.
The cop that has been watching Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor) is really happy to be getting rid of her. She is a real snot. With time running out on the train, she is dragging while she packs. Forbes holds a newspaper showing that Mrs. Neall is going to present the payoff list to the LA grand jury. They head out with Forbes in the lead, Mrs. Neall in the middle, and Brown bringing up the rear. Hiding at the bottom of the stairs in a man wearing a winter coat with a fur collar. The fur coat man is scared by a door opening and begins firing. Brown chases him and fires several shots. Fur coat gets away but is wounded in the arm. Forbes is dead on the top of the stairs. Mrs. Neall is only worried about her safety.
Brown takes Mrs. Neall out to the taxi, and they head to the station. Brown is beating himself up about Forbes. Mrs. Neall is complaining about the level of protection she has gotten. Mrs. Neall flirts with Brown, and he shuts her down pretty hard. Brown gets out of the taxi about 2 blocks before the train station. He says they have seen him but not her, so she is safer without him until they get on the train.
Mrs. Neall gets on the train and hides in Forbes’ compartment which is adjacent to and has a door with Brown’s compartment. Two gangsters in the station, Joseph Kemp (David Clarke) and Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco), get word to follow Brown because Mrs. Neall is with him on the train. Brown is followed onto the train by Kemp. Brown picks up the tail right away and doubles back.
Brown goes to his compartment and makes contact with Mrs. Neall who is hiding in the in the adjacent room. Mrs. Neall just chews on Brown. Kemp comes to the door with the conductor and uses a lost briefcase as an excuse to search the room. Kemp tries the door on the second room, but it is locked. For some reason, Brown tells the conductor that he wants to sell the second room.
Brown has to draw Kemp out. Brown goes to the dining car and sits down with an attractive blonde and orders a drink. She gets up to leave and spills her drink on Brown when the train hits a bump. She sits back down and tries to talk, but Brown can’t keep his eyes off of Kemp. When Kemp leaves Brown runs after leaving his money and a surprised blonde behind. Brown makes his way down the narrow train corridor but is blocked by the 265-pound Sam Jennings (Paul Maxey). As Brown squeezes by, Jennings says “nobody loves a fat man except for his grocer and his tailor.”
Kemp is back inside of Brown’s room, and he tries the door to the other compartment. This time it is open. He checks the beds and closets in both rooms but no Mrs. Neall. As Kemp finishes, he is stopped by the conductor who gives him a telegraph.
Brown is watching Kemp and runs to stay ahead of him. Brown has to turn back when he sees Jennings coming the other way. Finally, Brown finds an open door and goes inside. In the room are the freighted Mrs. Troll (Queenie Leonard) and a small boy Tommy Sinclair (Gordon Gebert). Tommy thinks he is a train robber but Mrs. Troll just wants him out.
Brown goes back into the hall. Kemp goes back to the smoking car and gives head signals to Yost that he has not found the woman. Brown goes to a lady’s bathroom, which are all located outside of the rooms. Mrs. Neall is hiding inside of the bathroom. They quickly go back to their rooms, having temporarily thrown the gangsters off the trail.
Yost comes to Brown’s room and makes a straightforward bribery offer for the location of Mrs. Neall. He offers $25,000 or $30,000 dollars, which is between ¼ of million and 1/3 of million in today’s money. Mrs. Neall listens at the door to see if she is going to be sold out. For a time, it seems like Brown may take the offer. Yost gives him $5,000 as a down payment. Finally, Brown says no and stuffs the money in Yost’s pocket. Yost says to think about it as he leaves.
In the morning, Mrs. Neall asks for lots of breakfast, coffee, and cigarettes. When Brown goes down the hall, he sees Kemp ahead of him. He takes a minute to search for Kemp’s sleeping birth. Brown finds the telegram, and it says that Mrs. Neall is on board the train and he should expect action before Albuquerque, signed Densel. When Brown comes out of the birth, Tommy busts him and starts yelling that he is a train robber. Brown picks up the boy like he is his dad. Kemp watches Brown haul the boy by. Brown takes Tommy to Mrs. Troll.
Brown goes back to the dining car. The blonde from the previous night comes out, and they decide to go to the car together. Kemp is sitting at a table with Jennings. Brown says he is starving and then that he is not going to eat. Jennings approaches Brown about buying the spare compartment. He gets agitated when Brown won’t sell the room. Jennings says he will talk to the conductor. Brown leaves after ordering room service and has to get by Tommy and Mrs. Troll in the hallway.
In the dining car, Tommy sits with the blonde, who is his mother Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White). Mrs. Troll is his nanny. Kemp overhears the conversation about Brown running all over the train. Ann sees Kemp looking at her. In the hallway, Jennings and the conductor are waiting to question Brown about the room. Jennings says they are stopping in about 2-minutes. Brown goes back into the room and Mrs. Neall only complains about not having food.
The train stops in La Junta, Colorado. The porter brings the food Brown ordered and that Mrs. Neall is waiting on. When Brown sees Ann coming down the corridor, he hands the food back to the porter and pretends it’s a mistake. Kemp stares at Ann and Brown as they talk in the room. Jennings watches Kemp and Brown. Brown sends a telegraph and Yost crowds in on him and shows him the newspaper photo of his dead partners family and hints at him taking the bribe.
The telegram asks for background on Yost, Kemp, Jennings, and Densel. He also says he expects trouble. But Brown scratches Yost’s name out as if he is considering the bribe. Brown tells Tommy a story. Brown finds out that Tommy is Ann’s son. Kemp sends a telegram saying the target is Ann Sinclair and there is no sign of Densel.
Back on the train, Brown dumps Ann in the smoking car, and Kemp is there too. Jennings and Brown come face to face in the corridor and Jennings is hostile. Brown takes a couple of sandwiches he bought to Mrs. Neall. She was playing her phonograph and started complaining about the food. She likes the plan that Brown has made Ann the target. Brown and Mrs. Neall have a fight about how to do the job. Brown goes back and sees Kemp following Ann. He slugs Kemp and the get in a fight in the bathroom. Kemp does good and almost wins the fight. However, right prevails and Brown beats him down and takes his gun. Kemp says he doesn’t know Jennings or Densel. Brown slaps the crap out of Kemp. Kemp tries to bribe Brown too.
Brown places Kemp under arrest. Just about that time the porter brings in the conductor and Jennings. Jennings reveals that he is a special agent for the railroad. Brown asks Jennings to pick up Yost too. Jennings takes Kemp towards the front baggage car to hold him. To let a lady by in the corridor, Jennings backs into an open room. There is a fur-collared coat hanging on the rack. Densel (Peter Virgo) puts a gun in Jennings back.
Kemp and Densel beat Jennings. Densel has a shoulder wound from the killing of Forbes. Yost has left the train.
Brown goes back to his compartment, and Mrs. Neall is still giving him grief. She accuses him of taking the bribe and wanting to betray her. She tries to convince him to take the money so they can escape. She harshly files her nails and the sound blends into the sound of the wheels driving the train.
Brown gets a telegram saying the men following him are gangsters. The conductor tells Brown that Jennings and Kemp are missing. They leave to find the man. At this same time, a car begins keeping pace with the train. This would be an amazing feat to accomplish. Brown spots the car and has a message sent to the Highway Patrol.
Brown goes to see Ann. He tells her that she is in his business. He tells her that she has been mistaken for someone else. Ann wants the truth. Tommy comes in, and Ann goes to the next compartment to put him to bed. Brown checks on the car, and it is still following. At the next town, a railroad employee snags a loop off the speeding train with his arm and has Brown’s message for the Highway Patrol.
Densel and Kemp go to Brown’s compartment. Inside, they hear Mrs. Neall’s phonograph coming from the next room. They trick their way in and grab her. She tries to talk, but they keep shoving her down. The rough her up for the payoff list. Finally, they let her go to her purse. She starts pulling a revolver, but Densel sees her move in the mirror. He shoots her and then checks on the following car.
Brown is watching the car when Ann comes back into her room. He tells her about the murdered gangster by the name of Neall. Ann says she is Frank Neall’s widow. She says the lady that has been playing Mrs. Neall is an Internal Affairs police officer. Brown has to justify to Ann that he can’t be bribed. Ann said she didn’t know what Frank did when they got married and when she found out she left him. Ann also says she mailed the list to the LA DA.
The conductor comes to get Brown.
Densel and Kemp find the fake Mrs. Neall’s badge and now know they have killed the wrong person. They leave to go after Ann AKA the real Mrs. Neall.
They find the beaten but okay Jennings in Densel’s room. The fur coat is hanging there. Brown heads toward Ann. Jennings gets another gun.
Densel knocks on the door where Tommy is sleeping, and the boy lets him in thinking it is Brown. Kemp pulls the emergency brake, and the train starts slowing. Densel goes into the room with Ann and has her under gunpoint. When the train stops, it is next to another train and Brown can see the reflection of Ann and Densel in the window. Brown tells Ann that Densel knows she has the list and she should go ahead and give it to him. Ann moves towards her luggage and Brown directs her to the medicine cabinet. When Densel is in position, Brown uses the reflection and fires through the door hitting Densel. Brown breaks in and kills Densel. Ann reunites with Tommy. Brown and Jennings chase Kemp to the end of the train where he jumps off and gets in the pace car. The Highway Patrol swoop in and arrest everyone in the car.
Jennings and Brown watch from the platform. By the time the train gets to LA, Brown, and Ann are in love. The reporters swarm the train. Jennings blocks for them as Ann and Brown duck out the other way. Jennings pushes past the reporters and then they have to turn around and push past him again. Jennings says “Like I always say, nobody loves a fat man.”
Ann and Brown walk and the run away into the city of angels. Two other cops come to escort Ann. Ann says she doesn’t want to hide anymore and dismisses the other cops. Her and Brown walk in the open.
Note – RKO director Howard Hughes had a scene removed that showed Brown’s dead partner had taken a $10,000 bribe to hand over Mrs. Neall. Whatttt!
World-Famous Short Summary – The fat guy was the hero
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Beware the moors
 H. H. T. (May 5, 1952). “Trans-Lux 60th Street Presents a Suspense Melodrama, ‘The Narrow Margin’; At the Trans-Lux 60th St”. The New York Times. Retrieved January 22, 2008.