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Monday, June 24, 2024

Lawdog McGraw Hampered By One of His Own?


Favorites List --- The Narrow Margin

I’ve a fundamental beef with Marie Windsor’s character in The Narrow Margin. As shown above, she turns out to be a policewoman gone undercover on behalf of the “Internal Affairs Division” to root out cops receiving “graft and payoffs.” Her function then is to fink out fellow law enforcement officers in event they coddle criminals. Posing as the widow of a murdered kingpin, she will be escorted cross-country by detective sergeant Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and work partner of six years, Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe), “Mrs. Frankie Neall” slated to testify against Mob interests, except Mrs. Neall is really “Sarah Meggs” who is planted for purpose of “testing” Brown and Forbes in event they choose to play ball with baddies. Gus is shot down as the pair attempt to escort their phony witness down shabby apartment stairs, after which faux Mrs. Neall disparages the late Forbes for having “got himself killed.” Brown understandably hates her and we are encouraged to do likewise. Here’s the thing: I disapprove of Ms. Neall/Sarah Meggs much the more on realizing she not only brought about Forbes’ death but will devote herself to making the now-solo Brown’s mission a miserable one, being non-stop rude toward the detective who blames himself for Gus’s death. She is determined also to corrupt clean-record Brown by proposing they both prosper on thirty-thousand so far offered by assassins who have boarded Chicago-to-L.A. train with intent to kill. “Why did they stick me with a decoy?” asks Brown once put right re the scheme and indeed we might pose the same question. Would less lives have been lost had “Mrs. Neall” confided her true identity to lighten Brown’s considerable load? Consider carnage she caused to possibly entrap what we know to be an upright cop. My sympathy over her fate went right out a window upon unmasking of this Internal Affairs plant. Does response derive from repeated seventies-eighties movie incident of venality within IA ranks? Harry Callahan got pains a-plenty from them, and often as not, IA personnel were themselves on the take. Maybe I’m muddled for years of slip-slide ethics as practiced by movies. Is it too late to bring back simple white hats and black hats?

The Narrow Margin
wasn’t meant to ponder beyond 71-minute runtime but note that like with comedy or any preset genre, characters are expected to behave as viewership might, given a same set of circumstance, this assuming we root with such characters. I on one hand might admire the policewoman's sacrifice and risk she took, but meaningful is fact the film does not address this nor refer to Officer Meggs after her death. Was recognition passed over to keep focus on Margin's witness/potential victim switch? To explore result of Meggs' conduct might muddy an already crowded third act. Fleet-paced programmers had not time or inclination to iron wrinkles in narrative, and even if they did, would a 1952 audience sit patient for it? Tis not for me to complain of how The Narrow Margin resolves, but might detective Brown reflect once smoke clears and he’s back on a daily beat? Having reviewed events at greater leisure with fixed income colleagues who have their own beef with higher-ups, might Brown protest, take the argument upstairs, bawl out the Commissioner even (but what if latter is dirty and previous object of Officer Meggs investigation?). Like Harry Callahan later on, Brown might toss his badge in the drink and opt henceforth for private work, or maybe like McGraw on other screen occasions, investigate insurance fraud (Roadblock), perhaps switch sides and knock over an armored car (William Talman could have used McGraw brains for that Robbery gone ultimately wrong).

Readership might someday tell me to shut up and enjoy these old pictures for what they are. Trouble is complexity within best of them crying out for alternate reads which I doggedly apply. Remember My Man Godfrey, Holiday, Suspicion? This is getting to be a habit. Is there such thing as Classic Era Rehab? The Narrow Margin was seen as special right from belated start, being finished two years before but for Howard Hughes as head of RKO dithering over release. He in fact wanted to scrap a whole thing and begin again as an A project with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, HH nuts enough to take the loss and have things his peculiar way. His Kind of Woman was said to have been a very different show before being virtually remade in Hughes image. Remember juggling of The Window before it finally got into theatres? As with The Narrow Margin, huzzahs called that 1949 thriller a sleeper. RKO was odd sort of address where miracles could happen. Merchandising however shrank from sleeper label because no, The Narrow Margin was wide awake and sure enough to be a mainstream hit, ads going offbeat direction to let patrons know this was no ordinary suspense ride, nor arty beyond their grasp. I sense Terry Turner behind this campaign and why not? He was live wire for Snow White’s reissue, ditto King Kong, and Sudden Fear, all selling 1952 tickets by bushels. The “Fat Man with a Gun” gag was something new. Did it remind watchers of Hitchcock's profile as assist to his output? Canadian venues compared The Narrow Margin with “Classic Tradition” of Hitchcock and Carol Reed. TIME magazine evoked The Lady Vanishes and Night Train (to Munich), reputations of these heady since long before. “A new school of ad styling” said the Motion Picture Herald, and yes, for something without stars, The Narrow Margin offered a memorable night out, if placed on lower level of bills.

Opinions weren’t uniform, the Catholic Film Society (London) figuring The Narrow Margin best suited to “normal male adolescents.” 1952 appealed to such for clear majority of showgoing, as in aim toward youth or go hungry. We like noir but for then-reviewers, they were common as dirt, including diamonds amidst much ruffage. The Exhibitor called Margin “a mishmash … the twists become ludicrous.” And here we are writing how inventive those twists are. A crowded marketplace barely saw difference between ordinary genre product and ones above fray mostly frayed. Still it was news when The Narrow Margin stayed eleven weeks at New York’s Trans-Lux, oft-art address not given to penny candy, anything they’d book amounting to endorsement for the venue’s invitation alone. Management left it for local press and discriminating critics to do the rest. Wider spread cinemas took their own chance, some to thrive, others to thud. “Make sure you sell the streamliner,” said the Motion Picture Herald, “display model railroads in the lobby” if possible, this presupposing you’d book The Narrow Margin for more than a day or two, many if not most situations opting for short hops, Margin its own streamliner rushed through town and on to a next brief stop. Outlying management ID’ed what may have been a central problem: “I would surely like to know who puts the titles to some of these motion pictures. Our business was no good because the title was not understood. Why couldn’t they have named it “The Eastbound Death” or something with a snappy title?” Why indeed? Nostalgia drives this train, even, or especially, for those of us who never knew dining cars, red caps, upper berths, the rest. Confinement speeds tempo. I’d as soon McGraw begin another murder hunt on heels of this one, such is comfort riding beside him. Adjustments? Less of gabby Gordon Gebert, otherwise yes to Photoplay bouquet for “a movie that moves, with a story that clicks!” The Narrow Margin so far eludes on Blu-Ray, but there is a DVD of good quality.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

Chalk me up as being one of Marie Windsor's biggest fans. I LOVE her in anything. Meeting her in person and having a nice chat cemented my respect for her. She could not have been nicer.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

I envy you, Mike. I really do. Add Beverly Garland and I'm a happy guy.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

It's available on Internet Archive in a decent version, the kind you'd have watched on late night TV. Surprised it hasn't made it to Blu-Ray though.

6:18 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Films like "Narrow Margin" convinced Walt Disney to entrust "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" to Richard Fleischer. One wonders what he saw in those tight little noirs.

4:43 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers varied subtleties of THE NARROW MARGIN:

I appreciate your ambivalence towards the Sarah Meggs character in “The Narrow Margin.” For a good cop like Walter Brown, the realization that his bosses thought that he could be on take was devastating. A man’s reputation is not his own but the possession of other people. However, you should be a little kinder to her. She was just doing her job and a dangerous one at that, in being a decoy for the real Mrs. Frankie Neale, who was on the same train. That raises an interesting conundrum, though, which I had not considered before. We in the audience do not know who Mrs. Frankie Neale is. We would be willing to believe that she could be the tough broad impersonated by Sarah Meggs, someone with a pragmatic take on life who uses her sex as others might loose change. She was a gangster’s moll, wasn’t she? We wouldn’t guess that she might be like that rather pretty, nice young woman on the train with her son, with the good manners and quiet restraint of a middle-class matron. But would the crime lords who sent out the killers to intercept Mrs. Frankie Neale also been unaware of who she is? Would her identity have been so hidden from them that anyone could be labeled “Mrs. Frankie Neale” and they would strike out at her, like a bull charging a matador’s cape? During the course of the movie, Sarah Meggs plays off Walter Brown’s stoic acceptance of what goes with his job, all the better to probe what underlies it and to carry out her impersonation. The nice young woman seems to be there to provide a counterpoint to the harshness of the Meggs character and suggest the possibility of another kind of life for Brown, one where his courage and strength might find a more chivalrous expression. As it turns out, the nice young woman is Mrs. Frankie Neale, hidden in plain sight, so that all attention will be turned upon Sarah Meggs. But could the qualities that make the real Mrs. Frankie Neale so different from the woman played by Sarah Meggs have been unknown to the gang lords? It would seem extraordinary if they were, as though a Botticelli might hang unnoticed in a gallery of avant garde art. Possibly Mrs. Frankie Neale in life was rather like the character portrayed by Sarah Meggs and this impression she gives on the train is itself a disguise, but one that plays upon characteristics that were always there, save for circumstances or bad choices. As a back story, it would make sense. The suggestion of another life offered to Walter Brown in her is no less the life she would want to assume. In any case, I enjoy “The Narrow Margin” for the sense of a world unto itself, created in the confines of a transcontinental train, where human morality is played out in forceful vignettes and suspense found in the choices that are constantly posed. But the thematic hook of truth and falsity or good and evil finds a disturbing ambiguity, when what was hidden should have been known all along, unless the heart with its secrets wears many masks.

8:05 AM  

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