Sunday, June 07, 2009
The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer, 1952)
Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952) at eighty-one or so minutes is arguably the leanest, tautest noir ever (the competition is, heh, tight; off the top of my head I can think of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour and not much else). It’s not so much the compactness that’s impressive as how much Fleischer manages to cram into the small space. Aside from providing characterization for roughly eight significant characters (including two leads), the small film manages to sketch an entire milieu (the American passenger railroad system), and make some kind of statement about misleading appearances (the story turns on a trio of killers’ quest to assassinate a woman they have yet to identify).
Even the overall theme is at first deceptive. When the film opens, one is made to believe that this is a strict delivery job, and that all the two police officers (Charles McGraw as Det. Walter Brown, and Don Beddoe as Det. Sgt. Forbes) have to do is transport a crucial witness (Marie Windsor as Mrs. Frankie Neall, widow of a mob boss) to a California courtroom; the officers’ banter about first impressions (and the five-dollar wager they place, on whether she’s going to be a standard-issue moll or different) sounds just like that at first, banter; later we realize it's a crucial exchange, implying a major theme.
Noir is often noted for the distinctiveness of its lighting (or relative lack of), less frequently for a sense of claustrophobia; but I submit that the latter is almost as indispensable a quality as the former, at least in the very best examples of the genre (The web of pursuit tightening around Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M; the dingy hotel rooms, bars, filthy alleyways and sewer-choked bridges in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil). I’d go as far as to say that if you don’t have any difficulty with your breathing come story's end, then maybe the film isn’t noir enough. The majority of Narrow Margin’s hour-long-plus-change running time is on the train, and Fleischer is about peerless in realizing not just the locomotive’s narrow corridors and tiny compartments, but everyday bustle—the conductors punching tickets, the dining-car waiters clearing tables, the passengers whiling away time by smoking or snacking or hanging about in the space between cars (the only privacy passengers can have, short of a sleeping compartment).
In more recent films set on trains--in more recent action films, or films period--the director often sends the camera following the passengers down one passageway after another. Fleischer worked with handheld cameras in this picture, but moves his camera only for emphasis (like the breathless moment when Mrs. Neall runs for safety to her compartment). Too much movement would break the spell of extreme confinement that surrounds the film (of course the decision to do this was as much practical as it was aesthetic: the handheld cameras then were bulkier). Fleischer often positioned his camera at or near corners looking down the corridor’s length with the unseen far corner marked by someone appearing or disappearing around it. He makes use of the rectangular space to create the impression of a maze, with only so many twists and turns (even the room to maneuver within this maze is limited).
The style creates other incidental effects: either the gangsters approach and expand in size, suggesting greater threat, or the witness and her protector move away, their shrunken forms signifying their increased helplessness. There’s also this awareness that the whole contraption is in constant motion at sixty miles an hour, a difficult effect to achieve especially when the production to save money was shot mostly on fixed, unmovable sets in-studio (Fleischer ingeniously suggests unsteady movement by jiggling the cameras not the sets), the paradox again playing into the overall theme of deceitful appearances. Fleischer later increases the sense of hurtling narrative by adding a pursuit car, flying down a road parallel to the train; we constantly glimpse the car through the train’s small windows, a silent, ominously inescapable Angel of Death looming over the passengers’ destiny.
I’d go so far as to suggest that Kurosawa must have studied this before making the tour-de-force train sequence in his own noir masterpiece, High and Low, that Hitchcock must have borrowed the hiding-in-the-foldout-bed gimmick for his greatest of chase films North by Northwest, and that every other filmmaker since who has toyed with trains (Sidney Lumet in Murder on the Orient Express, Arthur Hiller in Silver Streak; Peter Yates in the 1990 remake of this picture) has tried to emulate Fleischer’s compositions, to diminishing degrees of success. Fleischer’s noir gem is I submit inimitable; feature films are no longer so brief, nor so densely conceived, nor do they make use of so limited a space so brilliantly.