The Narrow Margin (1952) Directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Charles McGraw plays the sandy graveled voice of Detective Sgt. Walter Brown who’s reluctantly been chosen to escort a mob widow to the grand jury hearing in Los Angeles by train.
In the process of picking up Mrs. Frankie Neal, in Chicago, Walter’s partner is shot and killed in the darkly lit stairwell by a mysterious assassin played by Peter Virgo, the ruthless Densel, who wears a fur-trimmed coat. This only causes Walter to further resent the woman he’s been charged to protect and see to it that she makes it to the trial to testify against the mob.
This noir film has a lot of familiar elements, gangsters, the train ride, the detective’s dilemma – as the die-hard cop fends off the criminal elements that surround him, and the wrong man/woman trope. The mobsters, Vincent Yost, Densel, and Joseph Kemp want to get hold of a valuable list of names that Frankie’s widow will bring to trial. Yost tries to bribe Det. Walter Brown, but he’s an honest cop who can’t be taken in.
The Narrow Margin also stars Marie Windsor as Mrs. Frankie Neal’s widow and Jaqueline White as the respectable Ann Sinclair, a classy woman, and mother, traveling on the train with her little boy Tommy and their nanny.
Ann gets caught in the cross hairs of the intrigue when the gangsters mistakenly take Ann for Frankie’s widow. The majority of the film takes place on the train heading for Los Angeles. Don Beddoe plays Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes, “the fat man” who keeps getting in the way of Walter. He repeats the self-abasing proverb “Nobody likes a fat man” as he lumbers his way through the narrow passageways of the train en route to L.A.
Frankie’s widow Mrs. Neal is an obnoxious loud-mouthed dame, who doesn’t want to play by the rules and blasts her record player even after Walter warns her to hide out in the train compartment that the thugs think is empty. Marie Windsor reminds me a bit of the wonderfully quirky Ileana Douglas (Goodfellas, Six Feet Under, Cape Fear 1991). Douglas is the granddaughter of the great actor Melvyn Douglas. The fabulous actress isn’t a stranger to film noir, having appeared in some of the most underrated films of the genre, Force of Evil 1948 with John Garfield, The Sniper 1952, City that Never Sleeps 1953, and what I consider to be one of the top ten film noirs of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing 1956. Windsor is perhaps at her best in the role of the conniving Sherri Peatty who beats the spirit of her husband George (Elisha Cook) until he’s desperate to pull a heist that goes terribly wrong.
Walter: Sister I’ve known some pretty hard cases in my time, you make em all look like putty. You’re not talkin’ about a sack of gum drops gonna get smashed. You’re talkin’ about a dame’s life.You make think it’s funny for a woman with a kid to stop a bullet for ya, but I’m not laughing.
Frankie’s widow: Really well I don’t care, she got twins, you talk like you’d rather I got the bullet who’s side are you on anyhow?
Walter: Listen Jingle Jaw nothin’s happened to you yet has it?
Frankie’s widow: No, well it better not.
Walter: Well then shut up!