The Narrow Margin (1952)

Film Review


Release Date: 2 May, 1952

Studio: RKO

Director: Richard Fleischer

Starring: Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White

Special Notes: TCM Classic Film Festival, 2013

Narrow Margin was presented as part of the Riding the Rails theme at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival. Co-star Jacqueline White and film historian Eddie Muller (author of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir) discussed the film.


A tough cop (McGraw), whose partner has already been murdered on the assignment, protects a gangster's widow (Windsor), on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles. The tough-talking and unpleasant widow is scheduled to testify about her husband's associates to the grand jury. McGraw befriends the son of a pretty, young widow who is also traveling to Los Angeles. The journey is filled with danger and violence; gunmen on the train are determined to kill the widow. Before the trip ends, a couple of unexpected revelations surprise McGraw.


This movie exemplifies the tension packed storyline and hardboiled, cynical script expected of a film noir. The space limitations of the train, which crowds the characters together, increases the tension and suspense. Murderous gangsters stalk the corridors. Windsor, the tough and sarcastic widow, is hidden only by the thin walls of a compartment. The possibility of sudden violence follows McGraw through the train. Meeting in a narrow corridor, people slide by one another uncomfortably. Gravel voiced and hard-looking, McGraw, in his first leading role, is compelling as the tough and determined police office. Windsor, who specialized in forceful, hard-edged women, goes face-to-face with McGraw as they hurl biting wisecracks at each other.

Eddie Muller (the "czar of noir") introduced the film, which was shot in three weeks on a low budget. The direction is inventive in using the confined space of a train. The train effects, motion and noises, seem real. The film was made at RKO, and Howard Hughes, the head of the studio, loved it. He stopped its release because he wanted Fleisher to redo it with a larger budget and his biggest stars, Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. Eventually, Hughes relented and released the film. Its success did a lot for the careers of McGraw and Fleisher. During their discussion, Jacqueline White talked with Muller about her part in the film. It was her last film because her husband was not keen about her career. Fleisher asked her to do the movie. She had appeared in his film Banjo (1947), in which she acted with a recalcitrant dog. She said that McGraw was nice although his manner was gruff. He gave her suggestions but was a no-nonsense actor.