One of the most highly regarded films noir, RKO’s The Narrow Margin (1952), came perilously close to oblivion after being completed. During thirteen days in May–June 1950, studio contract director Richard Fleischer shot the suspenseful story of a Chicago police detective who risks his life to transport a hoodlum’s wife to Los Angeles, via train, so that she can be a witness in a mob trial.
Most of The Narrow Margin is restricted to the train’s passenger cars, a marvelous construction of claustrophobic sets (by Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey) with breakaway sections that allowed full camera access. The narrative is tense, and although many interludes are violent, the tale isn’t contrived. After the shoot was complete, RKO owner Howard Hughes suggested, with great enthusiasm, that the male protagonist, Detective Sergeant Walt Brown (Charles McGraw) leave his charge (Marie Windsor) in order to conduct a (literally) running gun battle with murderous mobsterson top of the train, as in innumerable westerns. Though cinematic, the added sequence would have removed the story from the realm of the plausible and turned it into a comic book adventure. Richard Fleischer thought it was one of the worst ideas he’d ever heard.
Well, Hughes abandoned that notion. Then he came up with a bigger one. Because The Narrow Margin had turned out so well, Hughes wanted to scrap all footage with McGraw and Windsor. The editors would salvage as many other sequences as possible, and the leads would be recast with RKO’s two biggest assets, Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. In a commercial sense, the idea wasn’t without merit, but it would obviously have meant the destruction of an exceptionally well-done B thriller. Fleischer, still typecast around the studio as a B-picture director, would probably have been cut out of the revamped project. He knew he could do Bs and ached to step up to the A-picture level. Hughes’s idea would be a setback to Fleischer’s career, particularly because rumors would spread that the McGraw-Windsor footage was deficient. Fortunately, the ceaseless activity of Howard Hughes’s mind brought with it some positive ramifications. Project ideas, endless memos with editorial revisions, a never-ending search for new starlets—all of that and more bubbled in his head like a stew. He eventually decided against—or simply forgot—the Mitchum-Russell idea, but time had passed. The Narrow Margin had been sitting on the shelf for nearly eighteen months.
Keep reading this excerpt on Bookgasm.com!
Film Noir FAQ celebrates and reappraises some 200 noir thrillers representing 20 years of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Noir pulls us close to brutal cops and scheming dames, desperate heist men and hardboiled private eyes, and the unlucky innocent citizens that get in their way. These are exciting movies with tough guys in trench coats and hot tomatoes in form-fitting gowns. The moon is a streetlamp and the narrow streets are prowled by squad cars and long black limousines. Lives are often small but people’s plans are big – sometimes too big. Robbery, murder, gambling; the gun and the fist; the grift and the con game; the hard kiss and the brutal brush-off.