The Narrow Margin Remains Charles McGraw’s Best Lead Role and an Underappreciated Noir at 70Movies Features Charles McGraw
You’ve heard of Humphrey Bogart, and you’ve heard of Robert Mitchum, but Charles McGraw? Maybe not.
With a tough face, sturdy stature and voice of pure gravel, he was a natural fit for the hard-bitten world of film noir. Other than his incongruous matinee-idol cleft chin, there wasn’t the whisper of Hollywood about him; he played a host of cops and criminals, and was eminently convincing whichever side of the law he fell. After spending the 1940s in supporting roles, McGraw had an all-too-brief spell as a leading man at the dawn of the following decade. While it’s not exactly a tragedy that his first two films as lead, Armored Car Robbery and Roadblock, have been somewhat forgotten to history, they’re both engaging movies, elevated immeasurably by his gruffly charismatic presence. His third starring role, however, was where things really got interesting.
In The Narrow Margin, he was again a lawman: Detective Sergeant Walter Brown. Along with his partner, Brown is assigned the task of accompanying Mrs. Neall (Marie Windsor), the recently widowed wife of a mob boss, on a long train journey—at the other end of which she will testify against her husband’s former partners. Of course, there are plenty of interested parties who hope she never reaches her destination, and they kill Brown’s partner before they even get on the train. From then on, only Brown stands between his charge and a bullet.
The Narrow Margin runs 71 minutes, and there’s not a morsel of fat on its lean, strong bones. The main players are all on the train within the first quarter of an hour, and just leave it for a single stop at a station to send a pivotal message. This is a train movie that derives most of its dramatic potency from its central mode of transport: Tiny bunks, cramped corridors, the knowledge there’s no escape until the next destination. The good guys and the bad guys are in such tight proximity, they have to duck and dive and twist around each other as they navigate the train, hiding and seeking. Director Richard Fleischer uses that confined geography in a plethora of visceral, innovative sequences; a blistering bathroom fight scene, so tight and kinetic it makes us feel like a third brawler, marks one of the earliest cinematic uses of handheld cameras.
Beyond the claustrophobia, the stakes are raised again and again by a number of factors. Mrs. Neall hates Brown for forcing her to testify, Brown hates Mrs. Neall for getting his partner killed; that mutual vitriol leaves the commitment of protector and protectee always in question. McGraw and Windsor had a similarly underwhelming career trajectory up to their appearance in The Narrow Margin (Windsor was known as “The Queen of the Bs” for her ubiquity in low-budget features), and watching them relish their chance to make an impression in a bigger, better manner than they were used to is a complete joy. Their sharply written exchanges—Brown: “You make me sick to my stomach.” Mrs. Neall: “Well use your own sink!”—are delivered with an almost gleeful acidity; in a movie stuffed with dark delights, the scenes shared by the two undersung noir legends are consistent highlights.
Adding to the heady brew of tension is the fact that the bad guys don’t know what Mrs. Neall looks like, only that she’s travelling with Brown, which leaves every woman the detective talks to in mortal danger—a prospect that terrifies Brown and delights his unscrupulous charge. Then, a final act fusillade of genuinely surprising twists turns everything we think we know on its head, several times over. The sheer volume of intrigue and drama that Fleischer squeezed into those 71 minutes is difficult to fathom, not least because it all seems so effortless.
The Narrow Margin was remade in 1990 by Peter Hyams, who dropped the “The” and added a great deal of explosions. Although Narrow Margin is a competent thriller with a solid lead performance from Gene Hackman and a couple of well-executed action sequences, its failures illustrate the manifold strengths of the original. Too much of the sequel takes place off of the train, losing many of the story’s claustrophobic thrills. The dialogue doesn’t sing. The closing cavalcade of twists is sanded into something smoother and far less interesting. Most of all, you really feel the lack of Charles McGraw.
After The Narrow Margin, starring roles became a rarity for McGraw—while he’d rack up a steady stream of supporting credits in classics like The Birds, Spartacus and It’s a Mad Mad Mad World, his sole remaining leads would be on the small screen (he even had Bogart’s iconic Rick Blaine role in a 1955 TV adaptation of Casablanca). A tragic fall through the glass window of his shower would prematurely end his life in 1980, at the age of 66.
The Narrow Margin is remarkable for its bracing tautness, cutthroat dialogue and ingeniously deft use of space. Above all else, however, it deserves its place in the upper echelons of the film noir canon for giving the genre’s most reliable character actor a rare and dazzling spotlight.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.