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Warner Home Video presents
"You have her. We want her. How much?"
DVD ReviewOne of the many appealing things about film noir is that, in the movies themselves, there's not a lot that's highbrow, there's rarely if ever any indecision or lack of motor. And that's especially true about The Narrow Margin, almost all of which takes place on a train—the plot is almost as propulsive as the Pullman that carries our characters. The title may be familiar, because it was remade with Gene Hackman and Anne Archer; but this original is sleeker, smarter and shorter, and, as one of the later noir titles released in Warner Bros.' second box set of the genre, demonstrates that the form still had (and has) plenty in the tank.
The action starts with a couple of hardbitten L.A. cops, on business in the great Midwest; Brown and Forbes are to meet up with a witness in Chicago, and accompany her back to Los Angeles, while keeping her out of harm's way. She's Mrs. Frankie Neil, the widow of an organized crime boss, and she knows where the bodies are buried—her late husband's roster of those who received Mob payoffs is the linchpin of the people's case against the syndicate. But the trip is hardly a bumpy one—the bad guys know who the cops are, but they've never gotten a glance of Mrs. Neil, so they're tailing Brown and Forbes closely, with the plan to rub out the little woman at the first available opportunity. Alas, it's Forbes who ends up first in the line of fire; he's killed in a Chicago shootout, leaving Brown to escort Mrs. Neil unassisted.
It's a great setup for a movie, and the rich premise is followed through on with energy and style. More of the bad guys are on the train, too, trying to get what they want from Brown both with honey and with vinegar—when the straight-arrow cop doesn't respond to their bribe offers, they promise that Forbes' fate may well be his, too. And along with all the high-speed cat and mouse, it's a treat, from our vantage point, to see the particulars of how one traveled a great distance before airline routes were ubiquitous. It's a time when, even if you were on the lam from the mob, there was some glamour in travel—who could resist club cars and upper berths and porters serving meals with china and silver? It sure beats the stale pretzels and saccharine flight attendant smiles that characterize most air travel today.
This being a film noir, there's plenty of snappy dialogue, too—here's Brown to his charge, Mrs. Neil: "Sister, I've known some pretty hard cases in my time. You make ‘em all look like putty." Charles McGraw is stolid as Brown, and Marie Windsor is a tarty little number as the mobster's wife; the movie gets a lot of mileage out of Paul Maxey's girth (he says on more than one occasion, "Nobody loves a fat man, except his grocer and his tailor"), though he turns out to be more important to the plot than as a mere obstacle between railroad cars. The movie also has one of the great third act twists, which I won't spoil by even hinting at. Even without that, though, it's well worth the ride.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: Scratchy, scratchy, scratchy. This RKO picture was a B film in its time, and it looks like it's been through the wars, with lots of damage to the source print. The transfer does well enough with an original this compromised.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: In the first couple of scenes, Forbes and Brown have a couple of stogies jammed into their craws, making them close to inaudible, and watching, you may get the fear that the whole picture will suffer similarly from the mumbles. Happily this doesn't turn out to be the case, though there's no shortage of static on the mono track.
Audio Transfer Grade: C+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 19 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by William Friedkin, with Richard Fleischer
Extras Review: William Friedkin, who proclaims this one of his favorite films, provides a commentary track, with an emphasis on the history of noir, dating back to Edgar Allan Poe, and its influence especially on his own work—apparently we have movies like this to thank for Popeye Doyle's rakish hat in The French Connection, giving us just one more reason to love this picture. Director Richard Fleischer is intercut with Friedkin only occasionally, with his memories of the project; there's very little of him, though, and the track is dominated by Friedkin.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsIf you're a film noir fan, you'll want to get your ticket punched for this one—even if the print doesn't look very good, this one is well worth watching for its smarts and its style, and the tautness never lags during its brief running time.
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