The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer / U.S., 1952):

Along with Ulmer's Detour, the ultimate noir "aesthetics of hunger" manifesto. There isn't much to the script besides claustrophobia, so Richard Fleischer rolls with it, expertly. The cramped passageways of the Chicago-L.A. train ride are anticipated in the great tenement staircase sequence, itself a drum-tight bravura concentration of shadows and canted close-ups that hurtles from the corridor through the courtyard and leaves a veteran detective (Don Beddoe) full of bullet holes. His partner (Charles McGraw) tenderly brushes the cigarette ashes off the corpse, the gangland widow (Marie Windsor) they were assigned to chaperone is unmoved: "Some protection they sent me." "The organization" wants her dead so two vultures are on board, circling their room -- mustached muscle in a flannel trenchcoat (David Clarke) and gaunt brain (Peter Brocco), each taking a stab at McGraw's conscience. (Bribes form the hard-boiled dilemma: "This train's headed straight for the graveyard. There's another one coming along, the gravy train.") Space is limited and every second counts, Fleischer works with telegraphs read and sent, reflections on glass panes, McGraw's plutonic jaw turned this way and that as part of a foreboding composition. Above all, he embraces the setting: A pricier film might have turned the train cars into elongated drawing rooms, but with a lowly budget Fleischer doesn't just acknowledge the tightness of the hallways, he makes sure that Paul Maxey's massive bulk is blocking the way whenever a chase is afoot. Anthony Mann's The Tall Target is a definite predecessor, the Hitchcock of The Lady Vanishes figures in the canny treatment of such actor-objects as Jacqueline White's ambulatory MacGuffin and Peter Virgo's fur-collared assassin; McGraw's extended, handheld lavatory scuffle is recalled in Torn Curtain, and later still in Crichton's The First Great Train Robbery. With Gordon Gebert, and Queenie Leonard. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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