Narrow Margin (1952): Richard Fleischer’s Taut Thriller–Classic Cult Noir

Richard Fleischer’s taut thriller “The Narrow Margin” is a quintessential film noir, shot by the great cinematographer George Diskant.

This RKO Radio picture, made hy Howard Huges (who admired it), stars secon or third-tier cast, Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White.

In this Oscar-nominated tale, Charles McGraw plays a cop assigned to escort a gangster’s moll (played by Windsor) on a train journey to a trial, at which she is expected to testify against the mob.   The police detective plays a deadly game of cat-and-mouse aboard a train with mob assassins, who are out to stop a slain gangster’s widow before she can testify before a grand jury.

Penned by directors Flesicher’s collaborator, Earl Felton, the scenario is based on an unpublished story written by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard.

Synopsis (Scene by Scene)

Charles McGraw, in his best role, plays Detective Sergeant Walter Brown of the L.A. Police Department, who, along with his partner, is assigned to protect the mob boss’s widow, Mrs. Frankie Neall (Windsor), as she takes the train from Chicago to L.A. to testify before a grand jury.  Frankie holds a payoff list that belonged to her murdered husband.

Brown tells his partner and friend, Sergeant Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe), the type of woman Frankie is: “The sixty cent special, cheap, flashy, poison under the gravy.”

As the detectives and Frankie leave her apartment, they are waylaid by a mob assassin, Densel (Peter Virgo). Forbes is shot to death, but the wounded Densel escapes.

At the train station, Brown has been followed by Joseph Kemp (David Clarke) and Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco), who later tries bribe him on the train. As predicted, Frankie turns out to be a cynical, flashy, and  flirtatious.

Brown befriends attractive blonde passenger, Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White), and her precautious young son Tommy (Gordon Gebbert). When Kemp spots Brown with her, he mistakes Sinclair for his target. Brown beats him up and questions him before the policeman realizes the mistake.

He turns Kemp over to agent Sam Jennings (Paul Maxey) and warns Ann. Densel, however, has boarded the train during a brief stop at Colorado, and frees Kemp.

Spoiler Alert

Ann then makes a big revelation, that she is the real Mrs. Frankie Neall; the other woman is an undercover police. Densel and Kemp search Brown’s compartment for the list and discover the fake Frankie, who is shot by Densel when she reaches for her gun. Kemp, distraught, discovers her police identification.

Densel is cornered in the compartment with Ann. In a bravura visual sequence, Brown uses the reflection from the window of a train on the next track to shoot Densel through the door, then kills him off in a shootout. Kemp jumps off the stopped train but is arrested. Brown finally fulfills his task, escorting Ann to the jury from the L.A. train station.

End of Spoiler Alert

Technically, the movie is nothing short of brilliant, with suspense and tension in each scene and each shot.  Crisply written, helmed and performed by all around, Narrow Margin is grounded and unpretentious.  Every scene logically leads to the next one–there is not a single unnecessary frame.

This inexpensive Stanley Rubin production for RKO has become an economic model of independent film.  By its ultra-modest budget and cast of unknown actors, Narrow Margin is a B-Movie but a major film noir, which has become a classic and cult movie.

The narrative, including the twist at the one hour mark reflects the quintessentially cynical and ambiguous  “noir” perspective, depicting an unstable and deceiving moral reality–no one can or should be trusted, and appearances are just surface.


Charles McCGraw as Det. Sgt. Walter Brown

Marie Windsor as Mrs. Frankie Neall

Jacqueline White as Ann Sinclair

Peter Virgo as Densel

Gordon Gebert as Tommy Sinclair

Queenie Leonard as Mrs. Troll

David Clarke as Joseph Kemp

Don Beddoe as Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes

Paul Maxey as Sam Jennings


The Narrow Margin was poorly remade in 1990 with Gene Hackman and Anne Archer.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Motion Picture Story: Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard

Oscar Awards: None

The winners of Motion Picture Story were Frederic M. Frank, Theodore St, John, and Frank Cavett for “The Greatest Show on Earth,” which also won Best Picture.

Oscar Context

In the same year, the other nominees were Edna Anhalt and Edward Anhalt for “The Sniper,” Leo McCarey for “My Son John,” and Guy Trosper for “The Pride of St. Louis.”