The 1990 film Narrow Margin came up from one of my random selectors, and when I saw that it was a remake of a 50s movie I decided to check them both out. Because the 1990 version is my official random movie, it will go first.
Gene Hackman – Deputy DA Robert Caulfield
Anne Archer – Carol Hunnicut
James B. Sikking – Nelson
J.T. Walsh – Michael Tarlow
M. Emmett Walsh – Sgt. Dominick Benti
Susan Hogan – Kathryn Weller
Harris Yulin – Leo Watts
So this a story that has been told before (a lot), a damsel in distress (DID) witnesses a mob hit, the cops transport her from Point A to Point B so that she can testify against the mobster, the aforementioned mobster demonstrates a great reluctance to aforementioned testimony, hilarity (or suspense) ensues. This story was most recently repeated a few years back with the DID being a surfer dude and the mobster attempting to stop the testimony through the use of M*F*ing snakes on a M*F*ing plane.
At least that M*F*ing movie knew that it was all in fun, Narrow Margin takes itself much more seriously and has a much less satisfying payoff. Here’s the setup, Carol (Anne Archer) goes on what turns out to be the worst blind date ever at a fancy hotel restaurant in LA. Her date is Michael Tarlow, played by the late character actor J.T. Walsh. In one of a series of contrivances, the screenplay gets them both up to Tarlow’s hotel room (for a much less fun reason than you think). While Carol is powdering her nose, Tarlow gets a surprise visit from two old friends.
Turns out that Tarlow is a mob lawyer who borrowed a little money from the mob without asking, this has displeased the mob boss Leo, who is played by another great character actor Harris Yulin. As Carol stays hidden in the other room, Leo helpfully explains the situation. Seriously, this is the chattiest mob boss ever, but then he does have quite a bit of exposition to get through. Once Leo gets through his speech and assures a sobbing Tarlow that he’s not going to kill him, he says “I lied” and the other mobster turns around and shoots Tarlow dead. Wow! Didn’t see that coming…from five miles away.
Carol is understandably scared and goes to hide at a cabin in BC Canada. Meanwhile in LA, Assistant District Attorney Robert Caulfield (Gene Hackman) gets a tip-off about where Carol is, and heads off to get her without getting permission from his boss. Cause he’s like that, he’s a renegade. Next thing we know Caulfield and an LA cop named Benti are at Carol’s cabin in the woods.
Benti is played by yet another great character, M. Emmett Walsh. As far as I know, this is the only movie that M. Emmett Walsh and J.T. Walsh ever appeared in together. And, no, they’re not related. They both usually end up playing kind of sleazy characters, so does Harris Yulin for that matter. Character actors like that are kind of like movie shorthand, when they show up on screen you automatically know something’s up. They’re probably really nice people in real life, but can you imagine? They walk into a dry cleaners and the people go, “Hey…you’re that guy…who’s a jerk!” Oh well, it’s a living.
Now, I’m not giving too much away here I promise, but things don’t go very well for Benti the LA cop. Caulfield later tells Carol that Benti was just two years away from retirement. Seriously? OK, here’s a tip: If you’re a cop in a movie and you’re really close to retirement…take a desk job. Definitely don’t go trying to bring in a mob testifier lady. Not a good idea.
Anyway, to make a long story short (too late for that) Carol and Caulfield end up on a train which promises some good suspense in the tradition of train movies like The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, and From Russia With Love. A promise that, for the most part, goes unfulfilled. The bad guys are also on the train and initially they have the disadvantage of not knowing what Carol looks like. Remember that this is 1990, if this happened today they would just go to her Facebook page and they would know what she looks like, what her favorite TV shows are, and how she feels about her current situation: “OMG my date just got killed and now I have to go into hiding. FML!”
The Misplaced Boy MST3K Scale:
Everybody does the best they can with what they have, which ain’t much; even Gene Hackman trips over the awkward dialogue. There is a fairly decent twist at the end that I didn’t see coming, but even that is squandered by bad editing. The best I can give this one is…
Random Quote Whore Quote:
Narrow Margin is an unfailing, tushed, steelworker of a movie! Gene Hackman is faucal!!!
The Narrow Margin
Charles McGraw – Det. Sgt. Walter Brown
Marie Windsor – Mrs. Frankie Neall
Jacqueline White – Ann Sinclair
Gordon Gebert – Tommy Sinclair
Queenie Leonard – Mrs. Troll
David Clarke – Joseph Kemp
Peter Virgo – Densel
Don Beddoe – Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes
USA – 2 May 1952
France – 22 May 1953
Now this is more like it. The Narrow Margin is a prime example of the film noir genre with a little hardboiled cop story thrown in. The story is pretty much the same as the remake, but with a few differences: Where the DID is an innocent bystander in the remake, in this one she’s the widow of a recently offed mobster. Mrs. Frankie Neal, played by Marie Windsor, has a list of corrupt officials that have been paid off by the mob. LA cops Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) are sent to Chicago to bring her back to LA to testify before a grand jury. Again, the mob would prefer that this not happen.
Unlike the remake, this version moves at locomotive speed from the first frame. As with most films of this type, it’s unsentimental and sharply drawn; the black and white images, lack of music, and the claustrophobic train setting help to keep the mood going.
Both McGraw and Windsor were perfect casting for these types of movies: Charles McGraw was the essential hardboiled cop with his square jaw, fedora, trenchcoat, and constant cigarette. Marie Windsor was all curves and bedroom eyes, like all “dames” in film noir, she was mad, bad, and dangerous to know. The dialogue between the two characters is a riot too:
Brown: Sister, I’ve known some pretty hard cases in my time; you make ’em all look like putty. You’re not talking about a sack of gumdrops that’s gonna be smashed – you’re talking about a dame’s life! You may think it’s a funny idea for a woman with a kid to stop a bullet for you, only I’m not laughing!
Mrs. Neall: Where do you get off, being so superior? Why shouldn’t I take advantage of her? I want to live! If you had to step on someone to get something you wanted real bad, would you think twice about it?
Brown: Shut up!
Mrs. Neall: In a pig’s eye you would! You’re no different from me.
Brown: Shut up!
Mrs. Neall: Not till I tell you something, you cheap badge-pusher! When we started on this safari, you made it plenty clear I was just a job, and no joy in it, remember?
Brown: Yeah, and it still goes, double!
Mrs. Neall: Okay, keep it that way. I don’t care whether you dreamed up this gag or not; you’re going right along with it, so don’t go soft on me. And once you handed out a line about poor Forbes getting killed, ’cause it was his duty. Well, it’s your duty too! Even if this dame gets murdered.
Brown: You make me sick to my stomach.
Mrs. Neall: Well, use your own sink.
They don’t write ’em like that anymore. I mentioned great train movies earlier, this one would go on that list. There’s a fight in a tiny train compartment between Brown and one of the bad guys that must have been studied by Terence Young when he was preparing the famous 007 train fight in From Russia with Love.
The movie’s not perfect, there’s a little boy in the movie who is convinced that Brown is a train robber. That gets old really fast. I don’t know why it is, but the way kids talk in these old movies is really annoying. Has anybody else noticed that, or is it just me? Also there’s a twist regarding Marie Windsor’s character that I had trouble buying.
The Misplaced Boy MST3K Scale:
This one is soooooooo much better than the remake, though. The only thing that the 1990 version has going for it is the removal of the pesky “the” from the title, but I’m giving the original a hardboiled…
Random Quote Whore Quote:
The Narrow Margin is a zestful, unsullied, lobworm of a movie! Charles McGraw is filate!!!