Two clarifications are in order. First, when reporting the events of Noir City DC 2016, I want to give you a taste of Eddie Muller’s film introductions that is as accurate as possible while providing some thoughts of my own. I’ll try to make it clear when I am quoting or paraphrasing what Muller said. My opinions will hopefully be read only as my opinions; I’m not trying to put words in Muller’s mouth. (When in doubt, listen to Muller, not me!)
Second, last Sunday marked the fourth time I’ve seen The Narrow Margin in 20 months. I am still not tired of it and could watch it again right now. If you’ve never seen it, I hope Muller’s thoughts on the film (and maybe even mine) will convince you to seek it out.
Before Muller introduced The Narrow Margin, he mentioned the recent news of AT&T buying Time-Warner, hoping that that isn’t a bad thing. This deal will no doubt have far-reaching consequences for movie lovers, especially, as Muller noted, because Warner Brothers holds probably the largest archive of classic films in the world.
But some fun first. Muller announced that he had several Warner Archive DVDs and Blu-rays to give away, but winners would first have to answer a few trivia questions. Right off the bat, Muller asked, “What is the name of Humphrey Bogart’s character in the movie In a Lonely Place?” I immediately knew the answer, not only because I’d just seen the film days earlier, but also because it’s one of my favorites, but I froze for just a second, thinking, “Man, this is Eddie Muller… You just can’t blow it in front of him!” But I raised my hand and Muller called on me. “Dixon Steele,” I said, and AFI programming director Todd Hitchcock presented me with a DVD of Robert Siodmak’s Escape from East Berlin (1962). I was totally delighted!
The only other question I can remember is “What movie did Humphrey Bogart and Alexis Smith star in together besides The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)?” (Answer: Conflict (1945)) The gentleman sitting in front of me won a Blu-ray copy of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, but said, “I don’t have a Blu-ray player.” I leaned forward and said, “Now you’ve gotta get one. You’ll love it!”
But on to The Narrow Margin: LAPD Detective Walter Brown (Charles McGraw, left) and his partner are assigned to travel to Chicago to escort a mob boss’s widow (Marie Windsor, right) to appear before a Los Angeles grand jury. Only some people in the criminal underworld aren’t very excited about that prospect. Early in the film (so this isn’t really a spoiler), Brown’s partner is killed, leaving Brown as the widow’s only means of protection. But once he gets her safely on the train, the trouble’s just beginning…
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve seen The Narrow Margin four times in the last two years and have written briefly about it. I truly believe this is one of the best movies you can give to someone who says “I’ve never seen a film noir. What are they like?” While some of the typical noir conventions might be missing, it doesn’t really matter. The Narrow Margin is a great noir thriller and one of the best train films of all time.
Yet it was a long time coming. Muller recounted the story of how RKO owner Howard Hughes shelved the film for nearly two years because he wanted it reshot with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. Why? Because Hughes was obsessed, not with Russell, but with Mitchum. Mitchum was Hughes’s “tall dog,” but as Mitchum is quoted in his biography Baby, I Don’t Care (2002), “I’m a tall dog on a short leash” (p. 199).
Richard Fleischer had already finished shooting The Narrow Margin, but Hughes refused to release it until after Fleischer stepped in to try to rescue His Kind of Woman (1951) from director John Farrow. (Muller mentioned that His Kind of Woman is so odd that it makes Specter of the Rose look normal.)
Muller also mentioned that Fleischer was very proud of this film, as well he should be. The film is “put together like a Swiss watch,” Muller said, and he’s absolutely right. Every piece is perfectly in place, lovingly crafted, paced, shot, acted, and directed. I don’t know if Charles McGraw ever headlined another picture (If you saw The Killers, which I discussed a few days ago, he was one of the titular characters.), but he’s wonderful here, as is Marie Windsor, a woman many consider the Queen of Film Noir. Together they’re absolutely unforgettable.
Also excellent in the film is Jacqueline White (right) as Ann Sinclair, a woman who steps right in the middle of all the cop vs. mobsters train shenanigans. It’s too bad White retired from films in 1950 (Remember, The Narrow Margin was shot in 1950, but not released until 1952.), but thankfully she’s still with us at the age of 91 and still appears at film festivals (most recently at the 2013 TCM Film Festival). Also still with us is Gordon Gebert, who plays Sinclair’s son Tommy. Gerbert (whose most famous film is Holiday Affair (1949)) went on to become, of all things, a professor of architecture at New York’s City College. I wonder if he still thinks about chasing Charles McGraw up and down that train?
Please see The Narrow Margin. You won’t regret it. In fact, The Narrow Margin and The Killers (1946) would make a great double feature for anyone who wants to know what film noir is all about. So dust off your fedoras, light your cigarettes (if you must), and share these movies with your friends.
Photos: The Last Drive In, The Movie Gourmet, Boston Globe, All Posters, Not Coming to a Theater Near You