THE NARROW MARGIN. RKO, 1952. Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White, Queenie Leonard, David Clarke, Paul Maxey. Directed by Richard Fleischer; written by Earl Fenton, Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story, 1953.

   Narrow Margin is a film that will surprise and delight the viewer who comes to it without expecting too much. Like Fleischer’s other noir classic, Violent Saturday, it’s taut, professional, and engaging without being as riveting or moving as a film like Out of the Past or Detour.

   I place that caveat up front because it’s easy for a film buff to come to this movie with great expectations. Director Richard Fleischer showed a lot of promise early in his career and The Narrow Margin was one of his most promising efforts. Then, too, the script is coauthored by Martin Goldsmith, whose novel and screenplay for Detour formed the basis of one of the undisputed classics of the film noir.

   In fact there are a few echoes of that earlier work in this one, particularly in the relationship between Charles McGraw as a down-at-the-heels cop on the verge of corruption and Marie Windsor as the shrill, shrewish, shrike o! a Gangster’s Widow whom he is assigned to escort by train to testify at a trial. Both Goldsm1th and Fleischer steer clear of the deeper possibilities inherent in the story, though, and concentrate instead on the superficial aspects of McGraw’s mission.

   Fortunately, having decided to be superficial, they proceed to be stylish as well. The script, terse and occasionally witty, serves the plot and actors very nicely indeed,  and the camerawork, roving up and down the narrow corridors and in and out of the cramped compartments of the train where most of the action is set, earns top marks for graceful planning.

   The choreography here comes across with subtle dexterity as well: As the characters move about, they alternate between clumsy struggles against their restricted environment and a smooth, natural flow inside it, impressive and suspenseful either way. And one particularly nasty fight inside a traveling compartment not only predates the Sean Connery/Robert Shaw set-to in From Russia with Love, but also excels it.

   And now a word about the Cast.

   It attains the remarkable felicity that seems reserved only for B-Movies, where there are no Stars to tailor scripts for. The Narrow Margin like Mask of Dimitrios or And Then There Were None, is a film where the Character Actors have taken over,. and it is also one· of those rare occasions where they have decent material to work with.

   As the brassy widow central to the plot, Marie Windsor caps off a career of playing schemers, gold-diggers and ladies of negotiable virtue. To paraphrase the joke, one watches her in this film and gets the feeling that you could go to the dictionary, look up “sleazey” and find her picture.

   An unknown actor named Paul Maxey does a very nice turn as an enigmatic, grossly obese Railroad Cop (and the camera makes the most of him navigating his bulk relentlessly through the dwarfed corridors) but the truly outstanding role goes to Charles McGraw as the cop, distrusted by his superiors, blamed for the death of his partner, and sorely tempted by the bribes of his adversaries.

   Charles McGraw spent his life doing small parts in B-Movies and smaller parts in A-Films. Fans with good memories might recall him as the kindly doctor in The Wonderful Country or the inept comic chauffeur in Once More My Darling, but his major claim to fame was as one of the two assassins (William Conrad was the other) in the 1946 film of The Killers.

   Possessed of extraordinarily beady eyes for a mammal and the raspiest voice since Lionel Stander, McGraw always looked just a little too tough to play a hero, as if any bad guys who came up against him just obviously wouldn’t have a chance.

   By the time of The Narrow Margin,  however, he had already been hopelessly typecast as the Muscle Heavy in dozens of westerns, costumers and gangster pies, all of which add a pleasant tension to his character when he wrestles with the temptation to either sell out his traveling companion or simply strangle her to shut her up. It’s one of those engagingly off-beat performances in a quirkily enjoyable film that seem to have happened only (and all too rarely) in B-pictures.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #37, January 1988.