Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Narrow Margin (1952)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Narrow Margin (1952)

In RKO's and director Richard Fleischer's (and an uncredited William Cameron Menzies) fast-moving noirish crime-drama - the film's screenplay by Earl Felton was taken from an unpublished story titled Target by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard, receiving an Oscar-nomination in the category of Best Writing - Motion Picture Story. The film was lauded for its hand-held camera-work, its noirish cynicism, and its "hard-boiled" dialogue between quarreling characters who instantly disliked each other (a seasoned cop and an acid-tongued moll he was compelled to protect).

One of the film's short taglines was: "A Fortune If They Seal Her Lips... A Bullet If They Fail!"; two other longer taglines summarized the plot:

  • 'THAT BULLET'S MEANT FOR ME!" - Suspense every speeding second aboard a stream-lined syndicate killers seek to find and silence mystery woman headed for the Grand Jury!
  • "She's the one for that bullet--not me!" - Night train West---carrying two mystery women. The secret of one can blast the crime syndicate wide open---and the key killers dare not let it happen!

The short, economically-told 71-minute sleeper B-film hit from RKO was followed 38 years later by director Peter Hyams' inferior remake Narrow Margin (1990) starring Gene Hackman and Anne Archer. It was similar also to the Bond film From Russia With Love (1963). The film's title "Narrow Margin" referred to the trench-coated detective's thin margin for error, between success and failure (and between maintaining his integrity or selling out).

The well-crafted plotline was about a number of mobster syndicate assassins who were targeting a widowed gun moll (a Grand Jury witness) who was being transported with police protection on a confining, cross-country Golden West (Santa Fe) Limited train from Chicago to Los Angeles, with a claustrophobic, tense atmosphere (without a musical soundtrack score!) - there were many surprise character twists and secret identities:

  • the cat-and-mouse plotline was simple enough: a widowed gun moll and grand jury witness Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor in a breakthrough role) was to be transported via train by incorruptible, hard-boiled Detective Sgt. Walter Brown (Charles McGraw); the witness had information (a purported list of payoffs - the film's MacGuffin!) that she was going to divulge at an LA grand jury hearing probing into charges of graft
  • under the opening title credits, a Chicago-bound train from Los Angeles arrived in the evening at its destination; Los Angeles police officers, trench-coated Det. Brown and older partner Sergeant Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) disembarked in Chicago, and took a Yellow Cab from the train station; their task was to pick up a dislikeable, tough female at her low-rent apartment hideout and escort her back to the next LA-bound Golden West Limited train leaving in only one hour (traveling through Kansas City, La Junta, and Albuquerque to Los Angeles)
  • on the way, they bantered together; their respective positions on the totem-pole were reflected in their smoking habits - Forbes smoked a large cigar, while Brown smoked a cigarette; the two made a $5-dollar wager on what the caustic dame Mrs. Frankie Neall might be like; Brown assumed the worst: "Sixty-cent special. Cheap, flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy," since she had married a hoodlum: "What kind of a dame would marry a hood?"

Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) Just Before He Was Murdered

Detective Sgt. Walter Brown (Charles McGraw)

Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor)
  • after entering Mrs. Neall's apartment and realizing how disagreeable, surly and argumentative the woman really was, Sgt. Forbes picked up the recent Chicago Star, explaining the circumstances - the widowed gangster wife Mrs. Neall was allegedly in possession of her dead husband's "pay-off" list; it would help the authorities to "break up notorious ring" and "CRACK-DOWN ON LOS ANGELES CRIME"
  • as the threesome (Forbes, Brown, and Mrs. Neall) were about to come down the staircase from her apartment into the foyer, pearls from Mrs. Neall's snapped necklace rolled down the steps; a few dropped to the feet of the assassin holding a gun and waiting in the shadows in the downstairs foyer; the mobster killer Densel (Peter Virgo), identified by a fur-collared coat, was then more unnerved when a tenant (James Conaty) entered a back door and startled him from behind - and he prematurely fired twice and gunned down Sgt. Forbes at the foot of the stairs; as he escaped and was pursued by Det. Brown, the shooter dashed through a series of clotheslines in the courtyard and hopped a fence (and was "winged" in the shoulder by Brown) into an alley, before fleeing in a getaway car; Det. Brown returned to his slain partner, and brushed the cigar ash off his lapel
  • afterwards during the cab ride back to the train station with his protected witness, Det. Walter Brown resentfully blamed the uncaring, cold-hearted Mrs. Neall for his partner's untimely death (after six years of partnering), after she muttered sarcastically: "Some protection they sent me!"; he was clearly upset with her, but still felt duty-bound: "You're just a job to me. A COD package to be delivered to the LA grand jury and there's no joy in it"
  • once they were settled on the moving train from Chicago back to Los Angeles, the aggravated and annoyed Det. Brown attempted to hide Mrs. Neall in his private, adjoining sleeper cabin/compartment (Car # 10, Room B) from two other assassins ("creeps") who were awaiting them at the station, but did not know what she looked like; the two killers were mustached muscle-man Joseph Kemp (David Clarke) and slender but oily and brainy Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco); as the train departed, Kemp identified Det. Brown as his target, and began to try and locate, identify - and eliminate his subpoened grand jury witness
Mobster Assassins on the Train, Targeting Det. Brown and Mrs. Neall

Joseph Kemp (David Clarke)

Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco)
  • Kemp came to Det. Brown's private compartment (Car # 10, Room A) with a Conductor (Harry Harvey), supposedly looking for his mistakenly lost briefcase, but he was more interested in checking out Det. Brown himself and his empty adjoining Pullman sleeper compartment (Brown claimed it had been reserved for his partner Forbes who was held over in Chicago); soon after Brown left his compartment to enter the dining car where he again saw Kemp (and watched him via a reflective window), he anticipated that the killer would stealthily leave to search his two compartments further; he briefly sat at the table of an attractive blonde (later identified as Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White), an important character), as his plan to hide Mrs. Neall (and her luggage) in the Ladies room succeeded, and Kemp found nothing
The Claustrophic Characteristics of Train Travel

The Narrow Corridors Next to Train Compartments

Reflective Windows to Watch Others

Crowded Hallways - An Obese Fellow Passenger
  • however, as Det. Brown returned to his room to further follow Kemp, he had to duck into another private compartment, where he surprised two sleeping passengers - a precocious, impressionable, overly-observant son Tommy (Gordon Gebert) who fancifully accused Brown of being "a train robber" and asked: "Do you carry a gun?", and the boy's older nanny Mrs. Troll (Queenie Leonard) in the top bunk; he apologized, then went to retrieve Mrs. Neall from the Ladies Room to return her to his adjoining compartment, where she worried about her safety: ("I'm the only one who won't sleep tonight")
  • Brown's loyalties, while risking his own life, were also tested by assassin Vincent Yost to see if he would accept a deal or "favorable agreement," involving a bribe of $25-30K to give up his protected witness: "You have her, we want her, how much?"; Yost even coldly suggested that Brown could use the money to aid the wife of his murdered partner Sgt. Forbes; although tempted, Brown responded and proved his honest-cop credentials: "I'm not interested...not at any price"; Yost pulled out $5,000 dollars as a "sample" if Brown would "point her out and turn the other way. You go through the motions of guarding her until the accident occurs"; Brown stuffed the money back in Yost's coat pocket, but then was subsequently warned: "We'll get her whether you give her to us or not, so don't take too long. It would be a shame if you missed your opportunity. I'm sure you'll find me when you make up your mind"; Brown was unaware that Mrs. Neall had eavesdropped on their entire exchange
  • by morning, it was obvious that Detective Brown and the ill-tempered Mrs. Neall had both taken an instant dislike to each other, and often spouted "hard-boiled" dialogue at each other
  • while Kemp was in a shared train bathroom, Brown searched his possessions left in his open berth, and found a Western Union telegram in his pocket, stating that another gang member named Densel would soon be providing support: "ATTRACTION DEFINITELY ON BOARD YOUR TRAIN. EXPECT ACTION BEFORE ALBUQUERQUE. DENSEL WILL CONTACT"
  • on his way into the dining car in the corridor, Brown again met the golden-haired, calm and sweet-natured lady from their previous encounter, and they shared a breakfast table, but he was entirely distracted watching Kemp seated for breakfast and conversing with the rotund man who had earlier blocked the corridor; the large individual soon approached Brown and introduced himself as Sam Jennings (Paul Maxey) - and Brown naturally deduced that Sam was one of the assassins when he offered to buy his spare compartment; an argument ensued when Brown refused (although he defused the situation), just as they approached the small Colorado town of La Junta
  • during the short 12-minute stop at the depot, Det. Brown via wire-telegram informed his home office's District Attorney about the latest developments ("....OUR CONSIGNMENT SAFE BUT EXPECT TROUBLE"); at the train stop, he also discovered that the young boy's mother was the same blonde woman he had often met; further complications arose when Brown realized that the two mobsters (especially Kemp) were mistaking Ann for his witness, and would threaten to kill her: (Ann innocently noted: "He probably thinks I'm somebody else"); in fact, Kemp sent a telegram informing his bosses back in Chicago (using the cover of the Midwest Equipment Co.) that he suspected the blonde was Mrs. Neall! ("...PARTY USES NAME OF MRS. SINCLAIR")
Det. Brown and Mrs. Neall Viciously Quarreling With Each Other
  • the detective was dismayed that Mrs. Neall, through overheard conversations, also realized that the hoods thought another "dame" was their target: ("Making this dame the target shows you're using your head"); Brown was incensed that Mrs. Neall showed no concern at all for the wrongly-targeted woman: "Sister, I've known some pretty hard cases in my time; you make 'em all look like putty. You're not talkin' about a sack of gumdrops that's gonna be smashed - you're talkin' about a dame's life! You may think it's a funny idea for a woman with a kid to stop a bullet for you, only I'm not laughing!"; she snapped back: "Where do you get off, being so superior? Why shouldn't I take advantage of her - I want to live! If you had to step on someone to get somethin' you wanted real bad, would you think twice about it?"; she continued by calling him a "cheap badge-pusher"; and then after Brown told her: "You make me sick to my stomach"; she quipped back: "Well, use your own sink. And let me know when the target practice starts!"
  • shortly later, Det. Brown worried for Ann's safety when he saw assassin Kemp following her down the corridor; he accosted Kemp from behind and punched him into a cramped Men's room, where the two viciously fought, punched, and wrestled against each other; Brown disarmed Kemp and knocked out one of his teeth, and when Kemp asked: "What's the muscle for? You broke a tooth," Brown retorted: "You want to try for none?"; during questioning, Kemp wouldn't divulge any information about his mobster organization and its members, but confirmed Brown's fears that they were targeting Ann Sinclair: "The payoff list and the little lady with the boy. Calls herself Mrs. Sinclair"; when Kemp again offered another bribery deal, Brown refused to negotiate with the double-crosser: "What am I? A jumbo-sized sucker? That list is no good while she can talk, so make some sense"
  • as the conversation ended, Brown threatened to kill Kemp if he hurt anyone: "You'll get nobody. Neither the right Mrs. Neall nor the wrong Mrs. Neall. You'll get nobody. Do you understand?"; Brown was grateful when aided by rotund Sam Jennings, who was summoned and revealed to be a railroad detective/special agent; he became helpful after Brown had beaten Kemp up, by handcuffing Kemp to himself and detaining him in the up-front baggage car; the charges would be "attempted bribe, resisting an officer, concealed weapon"
  • however - it was now uncovered that OFFSCREEN, mob hitman-assassin Densel (the killer who shot Det. Brown's partner in the opening sequence) had surreptitiously boarded the coach at the earlier train stop in La Junta, and traded places with Yost; he accosted Jennings who was detaining Kemp, freed his gangster-buddy, and knocked Jennings unconscious
  • when Det. Brown returned to the immoral Mrs. Neall, she remained suspiciously adamant that he was keeping it a secret that he had already been compromised by bribes: "Don't play dumb with me, Brown. You want that list because you've got a cash customer for it. That hood, am I right?"; she actually encouraged him to get rich with her, if he 'sold out' and double-crossed the other woman so they could share in the pleasure and profits; she asked: "What are the odds if we don't? I sing my song to the grand jury and spend the rest of my life dodging bullets if I'm lucky, while you grow old and gray on the police force. Wake up, Brown. This train's headed straight for the cemetery. There's another one coming along, the gravy train. Let's get on it"; he colorfully rejected her advice: "I'd like to give you the same answer I gave that hood but it would mean stepping on your face"
Det. Brown Refusing to Listen to Mrs. Neall Who Was Urging Him to Give In, Accept the Hoods' Deal and Get Rich With Her, While Ann Was Innocently Targeted
  • the scene transitioned from Mrs. Neall furiously filing her nails, to the churning wheels of the steam locomotive; a super-imposed teletype strip of paper moved across the screen with a cautionary message about Densel - sent to Detective Brown: "WALTER BROWN, GOLDEN WEST LTD., ENROUTE ALBUQUERQUE..DENSEL AND KEMP BOTH DANGEROUS GUNMEN MEMBERS SYNDICATE INVOLVED THIS CASE..DENSEL LAST REPORTED LEAVING CHICAGO BY PLANE. WITWER"
  • Det. Brown became worried when he noticed a black car trailing after the train, and a report that Jennings and his prisoner had mysteriously disappeared
  • he visited in the compartment of Ann Sinclair, his newfound acquaintance, and told her his fears that mobsters might try to kill her: ("an innocent bystander"); he explained: "You've been mistaken for somebody else and that somebody isn't popular," and promised to protect her as a detective, but warned her to be "on your guard"
  • while Brown was speaking to Ann, the two mobsters (Densel and Kemp) discovered the fake Mrs. Neall in Brown's attached compartment - they were tipped off by music coming from her portable phonograph player, and in a dramatic scene, as she reached for the 'pay-off list' in the closet, she actually grabbed a gun in her purse; Densel shot her in the back -- and she was shockingly killed; as she died and fell back next to her record player, she swiped its play button with her hand and it began playing again; shortly later, they rummaged through her things and found her badge and Chicago police ID inside the phonograph player, identifying her as "Sarah Meggs"

Mrs. Neall Discovered by Densel and Kemp

Pressured Into Talking

Reaching for Her Gun in Her Purse in the Closet

Shot in the Back by Densel

Mrs. Neall's Dying Hand Swiping Across Her Record Player

Her Real Identity, Shown on Her Police Badge and ID: Sarah Meggs
  • at the same time, Brown decided to level with Ann about the witness that he was protecting; suddenly, Ann disclosed to Brown that she was the real widowed Mrs. Frankie Neall; the twist revelation stunned Brown for being kept in the dark; Ann explained how the DA had instructed her "to get to the Coast and not to attract any attention"; she revealed that the female he had been protecting was actually a decoy -- a policewoman from Internal Affairs; the stunned Det. Brown reacted vehemently: "I've been played for a sucker! Why? Why did they stick me with a decoy?"
  • in fact, she explained that the entire scheme was designed to test him to see if he had integrity, as Ann continued: "They've been testing you. There's a grand jury investigation of graft and payoffs, remember?"; he claimed how he had never taken a bribe in his life, although he was human and had been tempted: ("My record's clean. The Internal Affairs Division knows it"); she further described how she had mistakenly married a mobster, and then left him before he was killed; she told how she had found her divorced mobster husband's payoff list, and had already mailed it to the DA
  • Det. Brown was notified by the Conductor that Jennings had been located and revived, and the "calling card" left by his abductor was a fur-collared coat - tipping off Brown to his identity as Densel
  • in the climactic scene, Densel grabbed Ann's son Tommy in her adjoining compartment, and used him as a hostage while Kemp pulled the emergency brake to stop the train; Densel was able to force his way into the compartment of the DA's witness Ann Sinclair; Brown tricked Densel into thinking that Ann had the list with her - to buy time and stall; as Densel was impatiently compelling her to reveal her payoff list that Brown claimed was in the medicine cabinet, Brown was able to get Ann to move her position away from Densel within the cabin; Brown used the reflection of another train's window to gun down the hitman through the door without compromising her safety; he then burst into the compartment and unloaded his gun two more times into Densel
Det. Sgt. Brown Protecting Mrs. Sinclair by Shooting Hitman Densel Through the Door, Using A Window Reflection to Know Their Positions
  • Det. Brown and Jennings pursued the remaining mobster Kemp, who fled and departed from the back of the train, but a few moments later, Kemp was arrested by awaiting police cars after he was picked up by a getaway vehicle (with his accomplices) that had been trailing the train for many miles
  • in the brief conclusion, Brown safely escorted Mrs. Sinclair off the train at LA's Union Station, avoiding news-reporters and photographers, but then Officer Allen (Walter Merrill) offered them a private escort by car; Mrs. Sinclair refused and didn't want to hide herself any longer: ("They'll have to see me sometime. I can't keep running and hiding all my life") and then - bravely but safely - walked the few blocks to the Hall of Justice arm-in-arm with Det. Brown

(l to r): Det. Brown and Sgt. Forbes in a Chicago Taxi

Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor) Picked Up in Her Chicago Apartment by the Two Police Officers

The Pay-Off List To Be Divulged by Police-Protected Witness Mrs. Frankie Neall in Los Angeles Before a Grand Jury Hearing

Assassin Wearing Fur-Collared Coat in Shadows of Foyer

Det. Brown's Uncomfortable Taxi Cab Ride With Caustic Mrs. Neall Back to the Chicago Train Station

(l to r): Kemp and Yost - Two Assassins To Continue Pursuit on the Train

Mrs. Neall in an Adjoining Room Next to Sgt. Brown

Det. Brown Mistakenly in the Train Compartment of Tommy and Mrs. Troll

Mrs. Neall - Worried About Her Safety

Yost's Offer to Det. Brown of a Monetary Bribe to Turn Over His Witness

Kemp's Western Union Telegram

Ann Sinclair Again Bumping Into Det. Brown

In Dining Car for Breakfast, Sam Jennings Introduced Himself to Brown and Ann

Det. Brown Worried that Kemp Believed that Ann Was His "Protected Witness"

Brown Threatening Kemp After Their Vicious Fist Fight in the Cramped Men's Room

(l to r): Gangster Kemp, Det. Brown, and Railroad Agent Sam Jennings

Hitman Densel (Peter Virgo) - Who Had Traded Places with Yost After Boarding the Train at La Junta; He Freed Kemp and Beat Up Sam Jennings

Det. Brown Explaining His Worries to Ann Sinclair That She Was in Danger

Brown Noticing A Black Car Trailing After the Train (Reflected in Window)

Film's Major Twist: Ann Sinclair to Brown: ("I'm Mrs. Neall")

Brown: "Why did they stick me with a decoy?"

Gunman Densel Using Tommy as a Hostage to Get to Ann

Densel Holding a Gun on Ann in Her Compartment

Film's Ending: Det. Brown and Ann Arm-in-Arm Walking to Hall of Justice from the LA Station


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