In 1952 RKO Pictures would release a low-budget thriller called The Narrow Margin. Starring Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor and Jacqueline White, the film at the time was meant to be just another cheap B-Movie. It was supposed to fill a double-feature bill in theaters, give moviegoers about an hour of entertainment and be forgotten.
The premise is simple enough – a witness who is ready to testify against some powerful mobsters has boarded a train headed to the grand jury Los Angeles. She and Detective Brown, the cop assigned to protect her, have been followed by some heavies who have orders to silence her.
Fortunately, they haven’t been able to ID the woman, but they do know Brown. Now he’s forced into playing a dangerous cat and mouse game with these hoods onboard this moving train. Can Brown outsmart these goons and keep the witness alive from Chicago to L.A. or is this train heading to a dead end for both of them?
We’ve heard this story before – a cop protecting a witness – but thanks to the performances by the actors, the suspenseful, unique locomotive setting and the tight direction by Richard Fleischer The Narrow Margin would attain a respected status through the years and become regarded as one of the best low-budget films of all time and a classic film noir.
Almost forty years later The Narrow Margin would get its Hollywood remake. Starring Gene Hackman, Anne Archer and James Sikking, Narrow Margin would update the ‘witness needs protecting on a moving train’ story.
Director Peter Hyams changes the characters, but the story remains essentially the same. This time it’s not a cop who has his hands full onboard the train, but Caulfield the prosecutor played by Hackman. He’s forced into this predicament and has to everything he can to make sure he and Archer’s witness survive this train journey.
I take a look at 1952’s The Narrow Margin and the 1990 remake which drops the “The” from its title – and see what else it does with this suspenseful story and how it compares to the original film.
Very nice recon (again) – I gotta confess I am one of those who didn't know it was a remake. I like that you went easy on the Hackman-Version (which I saw about five, six times), but the original (I haven't seen yet) really seems superior. I will try to get hands on it. Nice and well presented information about the origin of the term B-movie btw.
Really looking forward to your review of Quantum of Solace, which I thought was horrible….and I hope that Willy Wonka and All The King's Men are on your remake retcon list…:>)
I've alway's like Peter Hyams work. Outland with Connery is one of my favorite sci-fi film and good remake of High Noon in space. The one thing about his movies back in the early days was all his heroes uses their wits then guns. Star Chamber which many movie and TV show like BSG use a lot for their plot. He does do the action on occasion like Running Scared and Time Cop. But his he's been a hit and miss director. To me Narrow Margin was a bit of a miss of course, but manager to interesting for it's style and tense real stunts. If you want to see a connection to Prometheus and Hyams 2010 sequel. Both movies do the same thing when it comes to their helmets. It's too bad about Hyams later films, like J. Carpenter it seems their best work was in the 70s and 80s. Heck even James Careron recommend Peter Hyams to Arnold Scharzenegger for his return in "End of Days". It's in the making of that movie that Arnold say's that J. Carmeron is big fan of P. Hyams work. Also, he very visual like Carmeron and Scott. Plus he did until he went digital in another recent remake he did, film in natural light. If you look at those early films pay attention to the road and notice it's not wet. You talk about how it was distracting in your "Casino Royale" review how roads look like it had rain, mostly cause it's to help with lighting. Before he went to digital, he develop type of lens or camera to help film in natural light. So, his movies look like Blade Runner or The Taking of Pelham 123. I hope he still does more work. I like him to finish up his career on a high note. Sadly his dong DP work for his son directing those "sigh" Universal Solider movies.
Likewise I've followed Hyams career, which has been uneven, as much as I like the guy. He did a great job on '2010'. 'Narrow Margin' is entertaining enough, but it's ironic that it feels like a 'B' movie in the 1980's, rather than an 'A' film, despite the casting. Didn't know it was a remake until a few years later. I did catch the original on TV and despite very clear budget limitations, it's tighter and sharper and the twist is one that you can't see coming. This is the kind of twist movies should use: it put's everything that has happened in a new perspective, rather than being just something unexpected to heap on top of the hero's existing problems. This was another excellent movie review/comparison, with yet another top class summary of movie genre history.