Thursday, February 12, 2015

RKO Made the Best Film Noirs.

This is a truism: If a movie is a Film Noir AND if it's in black-and-white AND if it was made at RKO studios in the 1940s/50s, then it is a great film,  Cornered, Crossfire, On Dangerous Ground, Out of the Past, They Live By Night, Clash by Night... The list seems endless. Noir after Noir after Noir and not a clunker in the bunch. Or, at least, so few clunkers that RKO's win/loss ratio is still pretty darn high.

We can include Narrow Margin (1952) on that list. Directed by Richard Fleischer, its a tight and unpretentious story set mostly on a train travelling from Chicago to Los Angeles. Aboard the train is a cop, the gangster's widow he's escorting, and at least two guys who want to kill the widow before she testifies.

The cop is played by Charles McGraw. McGraw had a gravelly voice and a tough-guy demeanor. For most of his long career as an actor, he played character roles in movies and television. He's one of those actors many people sort of recognize when they see him in a film or a random episode of Gunsmoke or the Untouchables, but whose name they never quite remember. Well, unless you're an aficionado of Classic-era character actors. I knew his name, by golly!

 Narrow Margin gave McGraw one of his few opportunities to play a lead role. He does a great job, providing the lynch pin for the plot and the center around which all the other characters revolve. He's definitely a tough guy, but he also humanizes the part by making him a little jittery and capable of mistakes.

Marie Windsor is the gangster's widow, while the very pretty Jacqueline White is an innocent woman who is inadvertently involved in all the shenanigans by McGraw.

It's one of those movies that depends on being spoiler-free to an enormous degree--there are a number of twists and turns that are best enjoyed if you don't see them coming. That means I don't dare provide too much of a plot summary. Suffice to say two things. First, the film makes excellent use of its setting on a train, giving the story a claustrophobic feel as McGraw tries to stay one step ahead of the hitmen. Second, not everyone you meet is who they claim to be.

The film looks great in the way many Noirs do, with crisp black-and-white photography and effective use of light and shadow. Little set pieces (McGraw trying to squeeze past a fat guy in the narrow train corridor so he can duck out of sight before a hitman sees him) are sprinkled throughout the movie that add suspense and small touches of humor.

Narrow Margin was remade in 1990, with Gene Hackman playing the lead. Despite Hackman's presence, the remake has a weak reputation--though to be fair, I haven't seen it myself.

But the original is a minor classic. If you enjoy Film Noir, it's a Must See.

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