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STUDIO: Warner Home Video
MSRP: $19.97 RATED: NR
RUNNING TIME: 71 Minutes
• Commentary by filmmaker William Friedkin, with audio excerpts of director Richard Fleischer
• Theatrical trailer
Welcome to the world of film noir. A magical place where everyone has a witty insult on the tip of their tongues, women are called dames, the wicked always get what they deserve, and where The Lawnmower Man is just a distant nightmare. Film noir movies are guilty pleasures for some and something deeper to others. While there’s no denying that many films in the genre are true classics, there’s also no avoiding the fact that there’s a ton of generic films with borrowed style and no soul. So what is The Narrow Margin, a classic or a pale imitation of one?
"Powdered sugar and ectoplasm. Yes gentlemen, this man was murdered by Boo Berry."
Walter Brown is a hard boiled detective, the only kind that seems to exist. He’s got a voice like gravel and fires up at least one cigarette every minute. The only thing that matters to him is his job, and his job at the moment is escorting a mobster’s widow cross-country. She’s planning to testify to a grand jury and rat out the mob. The mob plan to make her train ride a one way trip and rub her out the first chance they get. Detective Brown is alone against a network of hoodlums and mobsters out for blood.
The only advantage Brown has is that the criminals have no idea what the widow looks like. Brown exploits this situation to his advantage, misdirecting the criminals at every turn. However, when his manipulations put an innocent woman in the crosshairs of the mobsters, Brown is stuck in a deeper rut than he could have ever imagined.
There’s something relaxing about watching a film in which you think you know the entire story before it happens. It allows you to sit back and enjoy the characters, to admire how the story unfolds. If something unexpected happens along the way, you’re caught off guard. The Narrow Margin is this type of film.
"I hate to tell you this, but you’ve either got a bad case of film grain or skin cancer."
One of the most intoxicating aspects of The Narrow Margin is the characters, even though they barely exist. There is no depth to anyone in this film. If a man looks like a grizzled private eye, then that is the extent to which his character goes. There is no exploration of his motivations or how he came to be this way. Each actor represents an archetype of the genre, and there’s no reason to develop them any farther than that. The story isn’t about the characters, it’s about the action.
The action almost never lets up in The Narrow Margin. That doesn’t mean that there are men punching each other every other scene, it just means that someone is constantly in danger. The mobsters are unrelenting in their pursuit, and their intentions are made more sinister by the fact that they make little attempt to hide their actions from Brown. Their aim is murder, and they are so confident in success that there’s no reason to try hiding in the shadows.
Brown is constantly on the move throughout the train, babysitting the foul-tempered widow, keeping tabs on the mobsters, and dealing with his fellow passengers. The only time the action stops is when the train itself stops, and it’s during this time that Brown endangers a fellow passenger. When the train starts again, so does the action and at a much faster pace.
Towards its end, The Narrow Margin has a few tricks up its sleeve that take it from a fun B-movie to a real classic. While some of the plot twists require a real stretch of the imagination to make work on subsequent viewings, there’s no denying that the twists are fun. The Narrow Margin is a fun and witty noir film, with enough twists on the standard formula to make it rise above the rest of the pack.
8.0 out of 10
"A wispy moustache, shifty eyes, and an ugly coat. No one will ever suspect I’m the villain."
Black. It’s like how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black. Lighting is essential in this type of film. After all, without the shadows cast over the detective how would we know exactly how hard boiled he really is? And without the women being fully lighted how would we know how glamorous they are?
Warner has done a great job with the transfer. Black and white levels are exactly where they need to be. It’s never difficult to see what is happening and none of the shading is compromised in the process. There’s very little grain present for a fifty-year-old film. Whenever the grain does appear, it seems to be in the more heavily lit scenes. If not for the content, this film could pass for a much younger, sexier film from another era.
8.0 out of 10
The tightest squeeze caught on film since the last Ron Jeremy picture.
No need to worry about the quality of the background music because The Narrow Margin doesn’t have any. Just train noises and lots of them. Not to belittle the noises though, they’re one of the essential elements in making the movie look like it was actually filmed on board a moving train.
You get all train noises, snappy dialogue, and gunshots in glorious 1.0 mono sound. The film’s sound mix has always been in mono, but some people are bound to be disappointed by the fact that a Stereo mix wasn’t created. Perhaps all the effort was spent on picture restoration and there was no time for a new mix.
6.5 out of 10
Ten beers and a misinterpreted comment about "cleaning Princess Peach’s pipes" later, the Mario brothers come to blows.
The featured extra is a commentary track by William Friedkin, director of films like The Exorcist and the Tommy Lee Jones classic, The Hunted. Friedkin’s only association with The Narrow Margin is that he’s a fan of it and admits to being inspired by it. It’s a real hit and miss commentary track.
Friedkin is very interesting when he delves into the subject of the noir genre as a whole. Unfortunately, when he actually talks about this film he becomes very boring, falling into the awful commentary rut of describing the onscreen action to the viewer. He also refuses to talk about events in the film before they happen, perhaps believing that a viewer would watch a film with commentary before they watched it without. He takes great care not to spoil the ending of the film, and then in a bizarre moment he completely spoils the ending of his own film (To Live and Die in L.A.) He must not be counting on anyone renting that film anytime soon.
Throughout the commentary Friedkin occasionally plays audio excerpts from interviews with the film’s director, Richard Fleischer. Fleischer has some interesting and reflective anecdotes to offer on his film and the genre as a whole. It’s a shame that he doesn’t have a commentary track all to himself. I would have appreciated the inclusion of the entire interview that these clips were taken from as another extra on the disc, but sadly it isn’t present.
The other extra is the original theatrical trailer, typical of trailers of its day. Plenty of big words zooming at the camera promising non-stop action and thrills. The trailer hasn’t been restored like the film has, and is often too murky and dark to clearly see.
4.0 out of 10
Death was later disqualified after testing positive for steroids.
Sticking with the original poster artwork is always a good choice. There’s no “noir collection” or other such tags slapped onto the cover, just the untouched artwork. It’s not the prettiest poster ever made, but the ugly pastel yellow is sure to make it stand out in your collection.
7.0 out of 10