Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Darkness #26: I Hear the Train a Comin' (Opening Scene of The Narrow Margin)

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Yes, I can see the parody, and how formulaic it is, if you can say a true film noir can ever be formulaic. But this entire first clip is emblematic of all things noir. How many times do they have to light up? The focus on the smoking is clearly over the top...everything is overdone, but very smoothly. How many names can you have for a dame...poison under the gravy? Really...what Chandler or Hammett detective ever spoke like that? Yet, there is such precision in the way the film follows noir elements, it works. The director pulled it off.

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I imagine this is mostly hindsight reading into the scene, but the crack about cigar being out again, having to relight it and then thinking of changing brands (to a self starter) seems loaded. Detectives lighting and smoking was there from the start in The Maltese Falcon, but here far from the "sacramental" attempt to find order it feels like a chore. Old age is indeed setting in, and the film is looking toward the "self starting" change.

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The opening scene in Narrow Margin contains some of the early noir formalist elements: of particular note; the loud and repetitive trains sounding off, the bells as well, and of course the nighttime setting. The close and lengthy shot of the train approaching, set behind the opening credits is lovely, while also a bit nauseating; like the motion sickness we might experience if we were reading in a moving car. As in most films noir, we start out completely out of our element and uncomfortable.

 

There are other aspects from the early films noir that are present in this opening clip. The characters are detectives and excessively light up a cigarette/cigar (I think I counted 4 times) in a matter of just a minute or two, they reduce females to a "dish" or a "dame" and they speak in an over emphasized and rapid New York accent. Rather than seeing this as a parody, however, I see this a a nod to some of the greatest films ever made in the history of cinema. Even today when a film honestly tries to be a film noir, it is awkward, appearing like a fake or a stolen idea; it simply doesn't fit. Not saying this is true of Narrow Margin, as they were still in the noir *era* at this time, I believe they were just trying to recreate something that was once truly magnificent. As noir had branched forward like any creative movement will, an early cling to it's nostalgia is evident in this film.

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As a younger person not even remotely born near this era, it might not be very obvious that the dialogue was becoming trite and contrived, or "burlesqued" as it were. However, I have seen this film in it's entirety and thought it pretty good. Anything can be bastardized, burlesqued, exploited and misconstrued when taken out of context. When a film is broken down into clips, that is exactly what is at risk. Though it offers us a vehicle to discuss specific points when say, learning to define a movement or characteristic of film, or painting, or writing, inevitably the film has to be assessed as a whole. The art of the film lies in the film as a whole not in parts. 

 

Sure, any good writer can recognize prepackaged dialogue, but if you say noir and its characteristics were being burlesqued in this film, you would have to say that the minute film critics and historians started to publish books and articles about Noir as a movement in Hollywood it was then bastardized and used for profit; a sure-sell-money-maker. The very fact that directors on-set, were reading some of the first critiques and analysis of the noir style as the French responded is a tell-tale sign that the exploitation of a "look" or "manner" such as in Mannerist painting, or at the very least a stylistic expectation was at play. 

 

Inevitably, the viewer has to recognize the art reflecting the age. Part of that reflection deals with not just the artfulness of making a social commentary, but also the fact that in that age, making money was part of the plan. In the famous words of Betty Schaffer (Nancy Olson's character in Sunset BLVD) "Oh, I don't know, I just think a picture should say something", we have the idea that substance and profitability were always at odds. 

 

That said, the concept of this film is similar to "La Bete Humaine" with the concept of a train, or even "Strangers on a Train" or "Journey into Fear" with the boat. All of these films use the concept of vehicles of interstate or intrastate travel to introduce the concept of "fate, chance, anomaly, etc." the mechanism of the absurd or the conflict that creates the existential crisis for our main characters. Desperation, intent, reason-for-being, and logic are all questioned as our desires come head to head with our obligations in the moment of a chance encounter. 

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To me this opening did seem a bit contrived. It is hard for me to say though because I am new to noir and I have a hard time putting myself in the context of how people were back then. That being said reading into what other people have mentioned about the trite conversation and seemingly forced bits of action such as re-lighting cigars and cigarettes makes sense in my head.

 

This seems to have a faster pace than other noir as if people were becoming impatient and so directors were trying to get into movies faster than before. I really like the discussion of who is right whether they know the girl or not and their bet. To me that brings in the element of chance or possibly fate as well. It's an interesting subject I feel.

 

M

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There is evidence of lampooning in the opening scene in The Narrow Margin (1952), such as when the two detectives just got off of the train from Los Angeles and is now taking a train returning to Los Angeles in one hour; the dialogue between the two detectives are too tongue in cheek, sarcastic and glib (i.e. Your cigar is "dead", or, What kind of a dame would marry a hood?); and, one of the detectives keeps on trying to light his cigar and after its third lighting, he glibly says, "I'm think of changing brands, somethin' with a self starter on it.".  This reminds me of the Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons' glib dialogue and its snappy delivery, from Warner Bros during WWII, although not as zany.

 

Some of the film noir elements in this opening scene that may be similar variations to ones we encountered in other noir films from the mid to late 1940s are:  the high energy of the roaring of the train with its lights and tooting of the horn threatening to de-rail as it is traveling to its destination which is similar to La Bete Humaine (although La Bete Humaine is from 1938); documentary realism from the traveling train, 'Chicago Yard Limit' sign as the train enters the station, and train announcements when the train arrives similar to Out of the Past (1947), or, Border Incident (1949); the use of the sounds of the train, people, cars, etc. instead of music for realism like in the The Killers (1946); studio look of RKO, "...nearly everything was composed of rich, India-ink blacks and silvery highlights..." similar to Out of the Past (1947).

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Parody seems to be a descriptor for many of the posts on this thread, and I suppose I can agree with that notion - if it's meant in the same capacity that KISS ME DEADLY (1955) is referred to as a parody. THE NARROW MARGIN does some brilliant bits of business in this opener, from the sound of the train during the RKO logo to the jarring light wipe with the credits. As is the case with any self respecting 50's noir, the picture's opening credits are laid out over an active background of moving imagery. 

 

The way the camera jumps around and darts it's attention is jarring to open, and things calm down a bit once we get to Charles McGraw and his partner. Not too unlike Ralph Meeker's Mike Hammer, McGraw's cop is a stereotype we know from the moment he gets off the train, and the actor takes this opportunity to have some fun. Some great lines, some great gestures, all fried with a hard boiled finish. I wouldn't necessarily agree that it's as subversively satiric as other posts would have you believe, but it's definitely a-one-of-a-kind noir experience.

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I've read lots of comments about the dialogue between the two cops... Mostly negative.

I don't know, I really liked the dialogue in this clip.. I love the way they spoke... Love the banter and back and forth.

Especially when they talked about the dame:

 

Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes: Bet you're wondering the same thing I am - what she looks like.

 

Walter Brown: I don't have to wonder - I know.

 

Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes: Why, that's wonderful, Walter, nobody's seen her but you know what she looks like. What a gift.

 

Walter Brown: Aw, come off it, yer just makin' talk.

 

Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes: Well, we get there just as fast, talkin'. What about this dame, Mr. Crystal Ball?

 

Walter Brown: A dish.

 

Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes: What kind of a dish?

 

Walter Brown: Sixty-cent special. Cheap, flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy.

 

Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes: Amazing. How do you know all this?

 

Walter Brown: Well, what kind of a dame would marry a hood?

 

Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes: All kinds.

 

Walter Brown: AW Gus, at heart your still a boy scout

 

 

Also enjoyed the opening credits with the lighting and the arrival of the train when the credits stop...

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I LOVE how they used the train whistle to make us close into ourselves, to give us the feeling of narrowness, when the title came up! That, right there, that wonderful little touch is why I prefer the B films.

 

"A dish. Sixty-cent special. Strictly poison under the gravy." --->Be still my heart. This, right here is "burlesque" in the Hirsh sense. It's like a stereotype. What makes this wonderful noir dialogue, however, is that the whole scene is burlesque - a set, a scene, in the sense that the directors know they are setting a stage and using a stereotype in the dialogue about a dame to set the mood for the show. It's almost as if they are being campy about noir. 

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As a younger person not even remotely born near this era, it might not be very obvious that the dialogue was becoming trite and contrived, or "burlesqued" as it were. However, I have seen this film in it's entirety and thought it pretty good. Anything can be bastardized, burlesqued, exploited and misconstrued when taken out of context. When a film is broken down into clips, that is exactly what is at risk. Though it offers us a vehicle to discuss specific points when say, learning to define a movement or characteristic of film, or painting, or writing, inevitably the film has to be assessed as a whole. The art of the film lies in the film as a whole not in parts. 

 

Sure, any good writer can recognize prepackaged dialogue, but if you say noir and its characteristics were being burlesqued in this film, you would have to say that the minute film critics and historians started to publish books and articles about Noir as a movement in Hollywood it was then bastardized and used for profit; a sure-sell-money-maker. The very fact that directors on-set, were reading some of the first critiques and analysis of the noir style as the French responded is a tell-tale sign that the exploitation of a "look" or "manner" such as in Mannerist painting, or at the very least a stylistic expectation was at play. 

 

Inevitably, the viewer has to recognize the art reflecting the age. Part of that reflection deals with not just the artfulness of making a social commentary, but also the fact that in that age, making money was part of the plan. In the famous words of Betty Schaffer (Nancy Olson's character in Sunset BLVD) "Oh, I don't know, I just think a picture should say something", we have the idea that substance and profitability were always at odds. 

 

That said, the concept of this film is similar to "La Bete Humaine" with the concept of a train, or even "Strangers on a Train" or "Journey into Fear" with the boat. All of these films use the concept of vehicles of interstate or intrastate travel to introduce the concept of "fate, chance, anomaly, etc." the mechanism of the absurd or the conflict that creates the existential crisis for our main characters. Desperation, intent, reason-for-being, and logic are all questioned as our desires come head to head with our obligations in the moment of a chance encounter. 

When seeing noir, I find myself paying attention to the characters who are forced to choose between selflessness and responsibility. Your post adds to my understanding of Existential crisis in film noir.

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Parody? I'm not seeing it in this short clip alone, and I don't know the film. What I am seeing is a self-consciousness of the genre. As so many others have noted, there's a pre-conception of what a "dame" or a "dish" or a "hood" is going to look like. But this clip, at least, lacks the smug  or sly or stony-faced mood (what folks today would mis-label "irony") that I associate with a hard-boiled parody. The partner is easy-going and relaxed, wanting to bet that the woman is NOT a stereo-type, laughing at Walter's wise-cracks. But after so many films it all runs together, doesn't it? Looking forward to seeing this one.

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I didn't really look at it as much as parody, but possibly formulaic writing - I doubt the writer or director wanted anyone chuckling. But it is amusing how McGraw carries on a normal conversation with the porter, but in the cab with his partner he's all "dame" and "dish" and "doll". He's also as serious as his trench coat, from the directive to the porter to the additional bark at the cab driver; his partner is relaxed and almost nonchalant (film cliché #426 - this will probably not bode well for the calm guy...)

 

Noir-wise we have the night, the location, the restriction of schedule (they have an hour to make the train, and we now find they have to pick up a "guest"), and we know that if they get her and get back on time, they'll be on a very long ride (Chicago to LA) in a confined space which will heighten the drama if anything is going to go wrong.

 

Sounds like our "dish" is a witness (girlfriend of a mob guy). We've seen this thread play out in a few recent films where the protagonist needed to locate the witness, but now we'll be looking at it from the other perspective. Apparently whatever they need her for (testimony?) has to be in LA; they're probably hoping they can get there without incident. The bad guys are going to have that same schedule to play their side of the game. But how? And when?

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I think self-parody is  probably one of the key ingredients of the hardboiled style per se. The world  weary detective always seems a bit bored and sometimes amused by the cliches that surround him. Think of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. He laughs at Brigid O'Shaughnessy when she tries to play the damsel in distress. He tells her her act is good, and that it's good enough to make her dangerous. How does he know this? What makes him such an expert on the wiles of these femmes fatales?  Well, he's seen them all before.

 

One of my favorite moments when  Spade mocks the cliches of the hardboiled style is when  he similarly critiques Wilmer's (the gunsel's) manner of expressing himself: "The cheaper  the crook, the gaudier the patter."

 

Self-parody doesn't  mark the end of hardboiled movies. It marked the beginning of that style.

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Hit Me in the Face so I Know It's Noir

 

The movie viewer can see and hear evidence of Hirsch's "parody of the hard-boiled school" and "noir conventions are being burlesqued."  The blaring noise of the train begins even when the RKO logos is displayed slapping the viewer in the face that this film is noir, and the noise increases for a short time as the credits roll.  Then we see the **** in their traditional trench coats depart from the train at night, light up a cigarette or cigar and talk about where they are going to meet up.  Once in the cab they talk over the case, particularly about "the dame" who the younger detective describes as "a dish--a 66 cent special--cheap, flashy, strictly poison, under the gravy."  Who else besides a stereotypical hard-boiled detective would talk in these words?  It is hard boiled taken to the extreme.  This young detective is so sure of himself and his assessment of the mobster's widow that he does not need to meet her to know who she is or how she will act.  The older detective kiddingly tries to get the younger dick to realize that he is prejudicing himself by forming an opinion before he meets "the dame."  This exchange is much like the one between Robert Ryan and the family man detective in On Dangerous Ground.  The heart-to-heart from this Robert Ryan film was sincere and thoughtful while the tete-a-tete in The Narrow Margin is a big joke. 

 

The noir conventions are burlesqued in that they are utilized to the point of extremity.  The younger detective is too hard boiled that he is almost turned to stone.  The older detective is too loose and philosophical that it is like a Leave to Beaver exchange--"Oh, geez, Detective, let's not get too worked up about this!  It's only one case, not the end of the world!!"  The description of the flashy, poisonous dish is so exaggerated that the viewer would imagine a burlesque dancer in a seductive costume doing the ****-koochy while lighting her own cigarette.  The detectives light up at the train station and shortly again in the cab--can they really smoke that much in a few brief minutes?  Even the young detective talks about the older detective's cigar being "dead."  This is a blatant remark letting any dunce viewer know in simple terms that this is a film where dead people will appear.  The dialogue is too simplistic and straight forward that the viewer is insulted by being hit over the head with the facts.  Instead of snappy patter that lets the viewer figure out the plot we have the details throw in our collective faces.

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Parody seems to be a descriptor for many of the posts on this thread, and I suppose I can agree with that notion - if it's meant in the same capacity that KISS ME DEADLY (1955) is referred to as a parody. THE NARROW MARGIN does some brilliant bits of business in this opener, from the sound of the train during the RKO logo to the jarring light wipe with the credits. As is the case with any self respecting 50's noir, the picture's opening credits are laid out over an active background of moving imagery. 

 

The way the camera jumps around and darts it's attention is jarring to open, and things calm down a bit once we get to Charles McGraw and his partner. Not too unlike Ralph Meeker's Mike Hammer, McGraw's cop is a stereotype we know from the moment he gets off the train, and the actor takes this opportunity to have some fun. Some great lines, some great gestures, all fried with a hard boiled finish. I wouldn't necessarily agree that it's as subversively satiric as other posts would have you believe, but it's definitely a-one-of-a-kind noir experience.

Parody is excellent at taking the style and aspects of what you are going after and doing it perfectly.  The films that become parody's are usually well done, well received, but they are parody.  Then it falls to those like Mel Brooks when the end has already come.

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I had not read the Prof's notes prior to viewing the Narrow Margin clip (whoops!); and while I was glad to see Charles McGraw (my first introduction to him was the great supporting role as one of the gunmen in The Killers), I did not realize he and his partners were detectives. In retrospect, they could have been on either side of the fence although analyzing the dialogue closer shows where they were.

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1.)   There is evidence in this scene from "The Narrow Margin" to support  Foster Hirsch's claim that this is a parody of the hard-boiled school.  When the two detectives exit the train station,  we see they are dressed in what was perceived by film noir audience to be the definitive "detective" wear which is fedora hat, gray or black trenchcoat, suit worn underneath and an ever present cigar or cigarette. The dialogue is atypical films noir dialogue;  delivered at a fast clip in between puffs of the cigarette. 

 

 2.)   Some of the major film noir elements in this scene are the train itself.  Trains and the action taking place on trains was a traditional setting for films noir. The lighting is reminiscent of other films noir;  the two detectives leaving the train car at night surrounded by steam; the two detectives emerge from the shadows of the train cars into the bright, key light of the train station.

 

 

         The scene in the backseat of the taxi cab when the two private eyes are discussing the woman they are about to meet is a variation on several Daily Doses we have seen. Typically, in films noir the main characters ( most especially the male protagonists) do not discuss the femme fatale before meeting her. The adjectives the two detectives use describe the as-yet unseen woman characters are the words used to describe a femme fatale which is further evidence to support Hirsch's claim that the dialogue in the film is meant as a parody of1940's films noir.

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The description of the same as "a sixty cent special" mixed with the other bits of colorful description felt a bit hammy. Although we certainly witness how women were treated or referred to in the 40 and 50s in these films, we accept that because that was the norm. This film however takes that out of the norm and makes it sound a bit ridiculous.

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Based on that short clip, yeah, I would agree with Hirsch. Most of what we see does feel like a parody, the trenchcoats, the dialogue, the cigarette, etc.

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To me it the opening feels forced. It may not necessarily be a spoof or anything, it could just be that since the film is a 'B' movie they copied all the patterns and 'trademarks' of noir. They may have looked at what they liked in the genre and put it on the surface with hopes that it made a good noir film. However it all fell a bit flat and feel contrived.

 

The dialogue seems like someone is trying to be clever.

 

The noir elements are the lights coming out of the darkness, the credits rolling while action is taking place and then the actual drama begins and there is an atmosphere of anxiety, albeit not as much of one as was evident in films of the 40s. These elements here seem like the filmmakers are trying to 

be innovative.

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I dunno if it's because the reading on this one put ideas in my head or what but something about these two cops felt inauthentic. Like I didn't by that they were police officers or detectives or anything...they felt more like idk bank tellers or something...it's hard to explain...maybe it was casting or maybe it was dialogue but it just didn't strike that hard-edged cord that noir usually does. 

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The Daily Dose clip from the opening scene in Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin is roughly in three parts.  First, the wonderfully cut train scene with its staccato lights and arrival in Chicago, with the train whistle punctuating the film title.  The scene shifts to the station platform where we learn that the two travelers only have an hour to complete their job.  Lastly, the scene in the taxi where a major character is discussed in terms of who she is and how she will be perceived over the course of the film.

 

The dialogue in the back of the taxi establishes not only Charles McGraw and Don Beddoe’s characters, but also their differing points of view regarding women.  McGraw is gruff, judgmental and confident, while Beddoe, more inclined to self-deprecating humor, gently refutes McGraw’s hard-boiled assessment and offers a more expansive view.

 

Foster Hirsch’s point that the dialogue is “burlesqued” is fair if somewhat harsh (one should be especially forgiving of B pictures!).  It suggests the writing is bad, mannered or lazy and at its worst, contributed to the demise of noir.  McGraw’s sight unseen description of the woman in question is certainly colorful and dripping with exaggerated disdain, but doesn’t screenwriter Earl Felton establish McGraw’s personality in the taxi scene as a place to evolve from over the course of the film?  If writers want and need an arc to avoid one-dimensional characters, then I think it’s appropriate to ask whether or not the writing style was intentional and crucial to setting up the major plot twist of the story.

 

I really like The Narrow Margin, so perhaps I’m forgiving of any “parody of the hard-boiled school of dialogue” in this opening scene.  If my memory serves me right, the first time I saw the film my initial reaction to McGraw was I thought he was very gruff and tough, the kind of cop who wasn’t looking for nuance.  Marie Winsor’s character is equally, if not more hard-boiled and she and McGraw chew up the screen for much of the film.  But isn’t this hard-boiled battle of wills the heart of the film and the reason we like it?

 

-Mark

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crimewave (below) has it right, not everybody is who they seem to be in The Narrow Margin, reserve judgment until after you see it. Hirsh is a bit full of it in his assessment in my opinion, but it's all suggestive.

 

Trench coats & fedoras were the style in the 40s & 50s in a lot of films not just Noirs so that argument is moot.

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 Do you see evidence, even in the film's opening scenes, for Foster Hirsch's assessment that the dialogue in this film sounds like a "parody of the hard-boiled school" or that "noir conventions are being burlesqued"?

Yes definitely with the two police officers in the cab they have very quick reactions and the comment about the crystal ball.  It is clear the one officer has his idea of what the woman they will meet Type is and other one isn't so sure.  

What are some of the major noir elements in this film's opening, and do they seem to be variations on similar elements we have encountered in other noir films from the mid to late 1940s?

Similar fast talk dialogue setting up the story. Its clear from past noir films that there always seems to be a catch or road block along the way that prevents smooth sailing from a to b, a c always pops up in true noir style.

 

 

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The opening has the train whistle sounding over the RKO symbol. Another train movie, but then it opens and it is immediately in your face - the light of the train coming at you, almost blinding you. Yes, another train movie, but this one is going to be all out, it seems to say. The train begins to slow as the credits roll and the sound of the clanging bell and the wheels slowing as they come to a stop at the station. "Your attention please..." is the first dialogue we hear as the two men get off the train and light their cigar and cigarette, a typical noir convention. Everyone smokes - all the time.

Realism peppered with formalism, so wonderfully noir! 

When the two men get into the car, the younger detective says to the other, "Your cigar is dead." The other counters with "I'm thinking of changing brands, one with a self-starter."

This is an acknowledgment that the old conventions are stale and overused: the train, the lighting of cigarettes, the young detective in his trench coat and hat and clipped, "hard boiled" responses. The older man states what is happening in the overall scheme of things - within the film and out: "I'm thinking of changing brands," he states, voicing the feeling of the general audience watching, perhaps. 

The younger detective sends his bags to the next train. He is bored; he's seen it all and expects to be done with his case in an hour. Like the audience, we have seen all the train-filled, lighting-up, detective stories and expect this story to be over in a little over an hour. Our bags are already checked on the next train.  

The two men are on their way to interview a woman, "a dish," the younger detective calls her, "60 cent special, cheap flashy, strictly poison under the gravy...what kind of a dame would marry a hood?" He hasn't met her, but is already convinced of her type. He has seen them all.

The older detective is more optimistic. He offers a $5 bet that the younger man is wrong. In answer to the "Who would marry a hood?" quip, he states that many would. He keeps us interested in the idea that there is more to this story.

The younger detective represents the young, tainted viewing audience who are "tired and have seen it all before." The older detective, which is ironic that he is the older man, gives us hope of an interesting story ahead. The in-your-face train camera work at the beginning hints that it might possibly be a wilder ride than we expect.

 

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