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Jean Pierre Lefebvre
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When a mobster's wife decides to testify against his evil deeds, she goes under cover to avoid being killed. Now that he's coming to trial, she has to be escorted across country by train in order to testify. Cop Walter Brown and his partner are assigned the task, but the mob are on their trail. Written by
Col Needham <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Filmed in 1950, not released until 1952. According to director Richard Fleischer, when the film was finished, RKO Pictures owner Howard Hughes heard good things about it and ordered that a copy of it be delivered to him so he could screen it in his private projection room. The film stayed in the projection room for more than a year, apparently because the eccentric Hughes forgot about it. See more »
The gangster Joseph Kemp is shown looking for mob witness Mrs. Neale in the upper berths of the sleeping car, but these could only be dropped using a Pullman berth key. The car porter is unlikely to have lent his work tool to a passenger. See more »
A dark ride that's maybe the best passenger-train thriller of them all
Trains have it all over ships and planes when it comes to creating a microcosm. On an airplane, everybody's crammed together; nobody can sneak on or leave (except by parachute or defenestration). An ocean liner has its private staterooms and public spaces, but, again, is an island, entire onto itself. But trains stop regularly to take on and disgorge passengers, and they run along their fixed and earthbound course, with windows looking out on rivers and highways, at big cities at high noon and small towns in the dead of night. And so they've always been the preferred vehicle for suspense, with countless thrillers using the rails as their setting. One of the tautest and most toothsome, in its modest, low-budget way, is Richard Fleischer's The Narrow Margin.
It opens in Chicago, where a pair of Los Angeles police detectives are to escort the widow (Marie Windsor) of a recently slain gang leader back to the coast to testify before a grand jury. She's a hard case (`a 60-cent special...poison under the gravy'), and guarding her is a dangerous job. Sure enough, one of the cops takes a fatal bullet in the stairway of her low-rent apartment house (she shows scant sympathy). Windsor's finally smuggled aboard the train, in a Pullman car's locked compartment adjoining that of her custodian Charles McGraw. Almost certainly, one or more mobsters followed her. It's up to McGraw to smoke them out before they kill Windsor, who knows too much. But he slowly learns that some vital information has been deliberately kept from him....
Fleischer makes inventive use of the jostling in the cramped passageways and of the all but vanished rituals of club cars and dining cars. He packs the train with seasoned character actors, notable among them Jacqueline White, Paul (`Nobody loves a fat man') Maxie, and Don Beddoe. The closely worked script, by Earl Fenton (based on a novel by Martin Goldsmith, who also penned the original material for Detour), doesn't stint on gaudy patter for them to spout (it's a moveable feast of salty epigrams).
Best of all, The Narrow Margin offers the addictive Marie Windsor her meatiest role, showcasing her tough-gal talents. Rolling her huge and extraordinary eyes, she aims her exhaled smoke like a stream of deadly gas and hard-boils her lines into hand grenades (to McGraw: `This train's headed straight for the cemetery. But there's another train coming along a gravy train. Let's get on it.'). It's one of Hollywood's more perplexing secrets why Windsor toiled exclusively, with the possible exception of her Sherry Peatty in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, in the B-movie ghetto. But she helped make that ghetto the liveliest part of Tinsel Town.
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