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The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer, 1952)
Richard Fleischerís unfussy suspense classic The Narrow Margin is among the very best of Hollywood B-movies. Filled with tough talk and fast action, it chugs along with a kind of single-minded, unpretentious determination that makes its lack of substance easy to forgive. To call it taut would be an understatement. The vast majority of the movieís action is set on board a transcontinental express train, and Fleischer does a superb job of keeping every aspect of this space in his control. Many of the scene transitions use a visual or musical cue to deftly carry tension from one section of the film to the next. The narrow hallways and seemingly infinite number of compartments on board the train create an unnerving feeling of claustrophobia that, when coupled with the breakneck pace with which the action unfolds, is liable to leave the viewer breathless. The plot, which concerns the transport of a female witness whoís been targeted by organized crime, lends itself to the exceptionally paranoid atmosphere that seeps into every shot. Dangerous, shadowy figures lurk everywhere. Even superficially innocuous elements of the backdrop such as a small boy, a car passing alongside the train, and the trainís conductor are soon presented as potential threats. Throughout the film, even after alliances shift and hopes spring up, the audience never feels on safe ground, primarily because the superior, Oscar-nominated screenplay is constructed so that each of the protagonistís minor victories brings with it two more complications.
The Narrow Margin is a sterling example of the sort of entertainment that Hollywood promises but usually fails to deliver. From the memorable performances (Marie Windsorís hard-edged widow is the standout) to its surprisingly gritty worldview, itís a movie that delivers on the promises that it makes, right up through its ending. Because of its conciseness (it clocks in at a mere 71 minutes) and its refreshing lack of self-important posturing, itís aged much better than most of its contemporary films. Though itís tempting to read its paranoid air as a symptom of the McCarthy era, thereís nothing that especially dates the film, and since there are few modern thrillers that work better than this on a technical level, itís as easy to watch today as any film thatís over fifty years old. Ultimately, The Narrow Margin doesnít transcend its B-movie roots, but at the same time, it fulfills them to a degree that one might wonder why the term B-movie has a derogatory connotation in the first place. If there really isnít much to say about it, that isnít to say that there isnít much here to enjoy.