The basic plot goes something like this: Detective Sgt. Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) is assigned to protect a mob boss's widow, Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor), as she rides a train from Chicago to Los Angeles to testify to a grand jury. Brown, on the way to meet her, expresses his contempt for Mrs. Neall to his long-time partner and friend Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe). Forbes is killed by the mob just after they pick up the woman. At the station, Brown discovers that he has been followed by gangsters Joseph Kemp (David Clarke) and the genteel Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco), who unsuccessfully tries to bribe him. Brown's relationship with Mrs. Neall is caustic. She is cynical and flashy, constantly flirting with him while doubting his integrity and committment to protecting her. Brown makes friends with an attractive passenger he meets by chance, Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White), and her too-observant young son Tommy (Gordon Gebert). However, Kemp spots them together and thinks that Sinclair is the target. When he confronts Kemp and gets into a fight with him, Brown learns of the mistake. He turns Kemp over to overweight railroad agent Sam Jennings (Paul Maxey) and hurries to warn Mrs. Sinclair. However, she has a surprise for him - she is really Mrs. Neall! The other woman is a decoy named Sarah Meggs. Meanwhile, Jennings is knocked out by Kemp's more dangerous associate Densel (Peter Virgo), the assassin who killed Brown's partner, and Kemp is freed. The gangsters enter Brown's compartment and kill Meggs. Then Densel goes for Mrs. Neall. He is cornered in a locked compartment with her, with Brown outside. Brown uses the reflection from the window of a train on the next track to shoot Densel through the door, then enters the compartment and finishes him off. Kemp jumps off the stopped train, but is quickly arrested.
This is a masterful movie that is well-paced, snapping up the viewer from the opening moments of the film, and never letting go for its entire 71-minute length. Trains are cool, and really neat when it comes to the creation of a microcosm in movies such as this. 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. For this reason, I find they are preferable as the vehicle for suspense, when one must set a film on board such a vehicle, and this movie is a taut and toothsome film noir with a modest, low-budget style and feel to it.
Charles McGraw is the perfect, square jawed but cynical protagonist for this film, and it is a fine performance on his part. Marie Windsor is terrific as the mobster's widow, playing the ultimate no-good dame. She and McGraw have some superb exchanges of barbed wit and dialogue during the course of the film, and brings the story's main plot to the fore in every scene they play together. Jacqueline White is lovely as the wife and mother to the young child, and there is a wonderful sense of the fact that she's the woman that McGraw's character needs, rather than the femme fatale-ish Marie Windsor. The surprise revelation about the two women was stunning, and caught me completely off guard the first time I saw the film, and I would never have seen it coming. It still has that effect on me whenever I see it again.
The folks surrounding the trio of McGraw, Windsor, and White are quite good in their roles. Don Beddoe does an excellent job in the first ten minutes or so of the movie as Forbes, Walter Brown's older partner. His death stays with Walter Brown for the rest of the movie, and is almost a driving force, particularly in the light of Yost's attempt to bribe him and Mrs. Nealle's caustic and taunting remarks about his partner. Paul "nobody loves a fat man" Maxey excels at his role of Sam Jennings, the train company's obese special agent on board, and does a good job. Harry Harvey as the train conductor puts in an admirable performance of the bit player who helps out the hero from time to time, and gives him a pesonality that is memorable. Finally there is Gordon Gebert as Tommy Sinclair, the son of Mrs. Sinclair, who is convinced for a large part of the train trip that Walter Brown is a train robber! Great stuff. On the side of the bad guys, David Clarke plays Kemp, the menacing type who is on the trail of the mobster's ex and Walter Brown. He plays it just right to give him a feel of creepiness. Peter Brocco plays Yost, the genteel thug who tries to bribe Brown when Kemp's attempts at finding the dame prove fruitless. He is quite menacing in a calm and quiet fashion. Lastly, there is the truly dangerous Denzel, played by Peter Virgo, the assassin who comes on board and makes this problematic at the end for Walter Brown. Great cast, all told.
What makes The Narrow Margin so special in some ways is the atmosphere and shadowy photography that director Richard Fleischer employs for the film, and the great use he makes of the train setting (the primary element of the movie, to be sure). If the moviemaking techniques in this film have a problem it is the brightly lit sets on board the train itself, that clash with the opening scenes at the trainyard as Brown and Forbes arrive in Chicago, and the somewhat darkly lit scenes at the station. That said the director uses the glistening corridors of the train to excellent effect. However, it is the acting and the dialogue that makes The Narrow Margin sparkle as film noir, with the plot twists and turns and the suspenseful element giving the movie its true strength and edge-of-the-seat style. I was also a bit sad about the fact that the death of the policewoman, masquerading as Mrs. Nealle, didn't receive a bit more screen time in terms of reactions, particularly on the part of Walter Brown. The ending of the film also seems a bit abrupt, but such are the time constraints placed by one's studio bosses.
Overall, I give The Narrow Margin an 8.5 out of 10. I love this film for its claustrophobic setting, the great acting of Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, and Jacqueline White, and the surprises and plot twists. I recommend this movie to any fan of film noir who has not seen this, and easily place it in my Top Fifteen film noirs.