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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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I almost opened my notations with "thanks, now I can't get the Johnny Cash song out of my head" but I can't find/remember what song it is!?  Do you know?

Sent in error.

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I almost opened my notations with "thanks, now I can't get the Johnny Cash song out of my head" but I can't find/remember what song it is!?  Do you know?

Folsom Prison Blues...

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Heartily agree with Professor Edwards' estimation of THE NARROW MARGIN (originally titled TARGET) and disagree with Foster Hirsch's assessment that the film is a parody of noir themes. It's a tremendous story, played out in confined space that extends beyond the train to the apartment house where Mrs. Neill (the terrific Marie Windsor) is holed up, and even the one sequence in open daylight at the depot still leaves you feeling entrapped. There is a definite air of lurking danger that Brown (Charles McGraw) is trying to flee and hopefully with the less-than-cooperative gangster's widow in tow. Not one of its 70 minutes are wasted.

 

I admit the dialogue is at times self-consciously pulp, but it gets the point across with a minimum of fuss, just like the film itself. My favorite line is Brown's elaboration on his judgment of Mrs. Neill as a "dish": "The 60-cent blue plate special. Cheap, flashy, strictly poison under the gravy." I just heard Richard Fleischer's comments about THE NARROW MARGIN in a TCM promo for Friday's showing. He said he told McGraw to sound like a man under pressure, and Brown's terse answers to about everything he faces fulfill the director's instructions beautifully. He talks tough in the noir style to reassure himself that this lousy escort assignment will turn all right. (Interestingly, a co- credit for the original story of this film goes to Martin Goldsmith, author of the novel on which DETOUR is based).

 

THE NARROW MARGIN is also a fine example of the realistic approach in noir filmmaking. The credits roll without music, the train whistle supplying the only background noise. (B movie economy rules our first sight of an approaching train rounding a bend in the tracks. It's from RKO's CRACK-UP of 1946, and I believe it was also used in another McGraw noir for RKO, 1951's ROADBLOCK). As the director's credit fades, Brown and his partner (Don Beddoe) leave the train, get into a cab and head for their rendezvous with Mrs. Neill. Noir's love of the night is evidenced not at the train station, the interior of the taxi but also in the gloomy apartment house where Mrs. Neill has been secreted.

 

The train interiors are realistic. The lack of music is almost unnoticeable due to the headlong rush of the story, and the closing of the film with Brown and the real Mrs. Frankie Neill walking through L.A.'s Union Station, with train schedules read aloud on the public announcement system again our only audio impression, is another convincing touch of everyday life, circa 1952. (The film had been shot earlier but was reportedly held up for release due to one of Howard Hughes' quirks when he ran RKO). Simply great.

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First of all, I haven't seen the film yet, and it's very hard for me to decide based on a 3 minute opening scene whether it is a "Noir parody" or not. I can say, however, that it is a great opening scene, very Noir; that reminds me of La Bete Humaine because of the "train arriving into the station" sequence, but also of Too Late for Tears, Caged and Kiss Me Deadly for instance, due to the "travelling to somewhere" sequence. There is of course, the darkness, the mystique; the cynical, unsympathetic, phlegmatic characters, and so on... If there are variations to the previous films, I don't think they are done consciously (at least I hope not), and if they are in fact, consciously made decisions, I hope they are simply homages to their precursors. Kansas City Confidential, for instance, reminded me greatly of 2 year earlier Armored Car Robbery, but it was just the “heist scene” - since the overall story is completely different! If the “parody” and “burlesqued conventions” were taking place here, it would mean that real (original) Film Noir ended with WWII or something…

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The tough guy's description of the "dish" in question is so cheesy that it has to be either a parody or the some really (wonderfully) bad writing. But even if it is the latter, the fact that the movie got made at all was likely because the filmmakers saw that the script could be taken either way, and chose to take it as tongue-in-cheek. After all, no one sets out to make a truly sucky movie (Jon Waters, et all, aside).

 

Train whistling over the RKO logo. Cut to the train coming toward the viewer, it's light cutting through a darkened sky. Train gets louder and just as it gets to us, we hear the deafening clang of crossing bells and see the words "THE NARROW MARGIN" bolded across the screen. Titles roll over images of the train coming to a stop. Two men, one an older gent and the other a hard-boiled tough in a trench coat, get off the train. The tough guy tells the porter to put his and his friend's luggage onto the train heading back where they came from, which leaves in an hour, etc... It's so noir it almost doesn't matter what happens next, which is, I suspect, the deal with this movie?

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The film opens with a train moving towards us and the camera moving away, in the opposite direction.  The background is industrial with the railyards, the steaming train and the cab on the street.  Industry is almost oppressive in noir.  We're at it's mercy, for example, at the mercy of the trains' schedules and the ability of the cabbie to get to a destination fast--trains, cars and traffic.  The same feel is evident in "La Bete Humaine."  These elements could be a burlesquing of previous noir elements.  The dialogue between the two men in the cab is brisk and to the point.  Sentences are short with edges of humor--the hard-boiled dialogue type.

 

To me, there seems to be more noir elements than variations of the elements, but it may be that I'm just not seeing them.  There's the familiar detective in a trenchcoat and fedora; there's nighttime; there's lots of shadows; there's would I would term the oppression of industry; and, there's dialogue of the hard-boiled type.

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The other thing that intrigued me about the opening of “The Narrow Margin” was the handsome actor playing one of the detectives.  Who is this guy?  Charles McGraw.  I had to research his filmography on Wikipedia; and I discovered he had been in a zillion movies (including “The Killers” and “Berlin Express,” both of which I had recently watched for this course).  YIKES ~ Why didn’t I remember him? Was “The Narrow Margin” his big leading role? 

 

I know I digress, but  returning to the discussion of our “MEANS” module, I think the studio system gave so much work to so many people and these “B” movies were analogous to the minors in baseball. 

 

To get back to the question at hand ~ Is “The Narrow Margin” a parody of the Noir genre?  All I know at this point is that Charles McGraw was leading man, i.e., major league, material. 

 

I may just watch “The Narrow Margin” Friday at 8:00 p.m.  I do so enjoy Eddie Muller’s introductions, and I would like to see what the “hoodlum’s” wife looks like.  :) 

 

I agree Charles McGraw is an amazing, solid character actor (and so underrated) in spite of such a long list filmography.  His small part but strong performance as the fishing boat captain in The Birds (1963) helped make the drama of "bird attacks" more believable.  It's also interesting that in the short-lived TV series Casablanca (1955) he played Humphrey Bogart's role as Rick.

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Throughout Narrow Margin we will see the train as a main character. It is is microcosm of the world, closed in, tight, noise and smoky air that makes it hard to breathe, think, or just turn around. Trains and train stations have been central in noir, even as just places to drop off baggage to collect later (Mystery Street, Too Late for Tears). But, the highway system and it's development after the war is beginning to take the place of the train. Quickly, by the 1960's, with cheap gas and cars, Americans will use cars almost exclusively, and vast sections of the country today, only see or know about passenger trains by watching movies.

 

You can also see the beginning of throwing in jokes into the film, of making it in little asides to the audience with a wink. It's not a comedy, but little things, those who know noir, will see and laugh at. The detective Walter Brown, so jaded and tough that he can tell what the “dame” looks like, even though he has never seen her. “...a dish...60 cent special...hide under the gravy...cheap....”

 

We see the tools of the detective, hard boiled, cigars and cigarettes, “...thinking of switching brands, one with a self starter....” The train whistle before seeing anything, then the train on a curve, lights of cars showing then...the headlight of the train coming straight at you, almost run over as the title comes up. Coming not into the Chicago City Limits but the “Chicago Yard Limits”, making our small world even smaller. Reflections of the station in the train windows as it comes in and to a stop. Then the typical angled up shot on the detectives to make them larger, as they walk through the steam coming up from the cars. Grabbing the taxi, “...know any short cuts...take 'em...” The taxi driving through the darkness of the overhead highway or elevated train. Driving through the “slightly south of the high rent district”.

 

If you know noir then you see it all, it is too much too fast in a small space of time. The language the action is the burlesque of noir. It is like the other truly American genre, if noir is a genre, the Western. There began to be too many comedic westerns and westerns that supposedly were real, but we all saw the fun being made, and with the real stars of westerns like Richard Widmark in Alverez Kelly, Burt Lancaster in Hallelujah Trail, Kirk Douglas and John Wayne in The War Wagon, and then Wayne in McClintock. Then the final blow dealt by Mel Brooks with Blazing Saddles. Just as he would do with the suspense/noir film in High Anxiety. Just as They Came Together is bringing in the death knell of the romantic comedy. I don't recall who said it but when a genre becomes parody of itself it is dead.

 

You can see the parody in Narrow Margin an other films. It begins their slow death.

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The train whistle over the RKO opening is different; usually you'd hear music, or in the beginning the beeping of Morse code. The train rushes at us and the camera jumps back, like we would if we saw a high speed train coming at us.

 

The dark shadows and low key lighting immediately let you know it's another film noir. Same with Charles McGraw in a fedora and trench coat. His gravelly voice was perfect for any film noir.

 

The description of the dame does seem to get burlesqued; they're often described as cheap and flashy but in different wording.  And the dialogue has a good point when McGraw asks "what kind of dame would marry a hood?" and his partner answers "all of them". Any dame could end up with a hood the way he says "I like you baby, you're different".

 

Marie Windsor is one of my favorite B movie stars, and the fierce tension between her and Charles McGraw shows why they often co-starred in B movies.  Especially with this kind of dialogue:

 

Brown: You make me sick to my stomach.

Mrs. Neall: Well, use your own sink. And let me know when the target practice starts!

 

Mrs. Neall to Brown as he straps his gun on: "What're you gonna do, go out and shoot us some breakfast?"

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post-47818-0-96244700-1437506598_thumb.jpg

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The detective in this scene from Narrow Margin know what to expect from our femme fatale, just like the audience. It's almost like we are sharing an inside joke with the characters.  As if to say, we've both been here before and we know what this "dame," this "60 cent dish" is all about.  We've seen the trains, the back seats of cabs, the trench coats and dark city streets before.  This opening scene seems to say that we know where this is going, so hold our bags because it's only going to be an hour before this story is over and the train leaves the station.

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This film's opening title threw me off because of it's pace. The title jumps out at you, and the music that accompanies it gives the sense that the action will begin immediately, but then everything slows down literally as the train pulls into the station. The only evidence I could find that supports Foster Hirsch's assessment is the description of the woman the two men are going to pick up. It feels like a summary of most femme fatale characters I've seen in noir films. So, in that sense Foster Hirsch may be correct, but I obviously have to see the rest of the film. 

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I don't feel like the dialog in this film is being parodied or burlesqued as much as it has become ordinary. What was once unique and interesting has become standard. I found myself thinking about the hook. Where is it? What is going to make this noir film interesting. Is there a gimmick or a twist that is going to put this film on its head? For me the hook didn't come in the opening or the dialog. I wonder if it lurks around the bend?

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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"?

I would not call the dialog in this initial film clip, a "parody of the hard-boiled school." There are not that many shared words at this point to give any other assessment. The one interesting sentence, "I know what she looks like, a dish, a 60 cents special, what kind of dame would marry a hood." It's film noir dialog and just right for the scene.

 

-- 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?

The film noir elements seen in this film clip, first is the train whistle, followed by the headlight of the oncoming locomotive. The size of the light keeps getting bigger and finally fills the entire screen with bright white. Then we see through the train windows, "Chicago Yard Limit" flash through. Next there is the taxi scene through the night streets of Chicago. Lots of lights and shadows. These film noir elements are right in line with other film noir films of the mid to late 1940's.

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There is something a bit cornball about the dialogue between the men. Words like "dame" and "I know what she looks like" are almost parody of hardboiled film noir dialogue. There's also a slight, but discernible difference between the two men. The one farthest from the camera seems to be less noir (toughened) than the one closest to the camera.

 

The train is such a common trait in film noir that audiences probably thought, "Dear God. It's another one of those movies with a train!" The dark and light shadows in the scene are typical film noir, underscoring that the film is a sort of sendup of the style/genre.

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There is something a bit cornball about the dialogue between the men. Words like "dame" and "I know what she looks like" are almost parody of hardboiled film noir dialogue. There's also a slight, but discernible difference between the two men. The one farthest from the camera seems to be less noir (toughened) than the one closest to the camera.

 

The train is such a common trait in film noir that audiences probably thought, "Dear God. It's another one of those movies with a train!" The dark and light shadows in the scene are typical film noir, underscoring that the film is a sort of sendup of the style/genre.

I agree with you that the film seems to be reflecting hardboiled dialogue with a touch of parody.  I can't help but picture the two men as mimicking the toughness of Humphrey Bogart and the humor/mystery of someone like Sydney Greenstreet or Peter Lorre.  I feel like they're almost mocking them in an intentional way, but then again, that may just be the nature of a "B" picture.

 

This movie screams "B" picture because of its reliance on hardboiled dialogue, but also stereotypes of film noir like the train and the cutting from places fast.  The only problem is you can see how poorly constructed the cuts of the first scenes are.  Definitely low budget.  This was probably the only Daily Dose clip that made me not want to see the film!

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This opening sequence from "The Narrow Margin" utilizes several now conventional noir elements: a vehicle coming at us out of the darkness, in this case a train, the sounds of which dominate the pace and rhythm of the story at this point, a detective wearing a trench coat, chirasuro lighting techniques and a close and claustrophobic camera shot of two guys in a car. Since all of these techniques are variations on things that we have now seen over and over in other films noir, does that mean that noir has degenerated into a formula? Quite possibly so. If a filmmaker had a story that he or she wanted to bring to the screen they would surely look at what had worked successfully for other such stories. But is that so wrong? Not necessarily. "The Narrow Margin" is a film that I have seen several times, and I believe director Fleischer delivers a suspenseful experience with some good plot twists. The shooting style gives the audience the true feeling of being on the train ride. As for the snappy dialogue, I had never considered that it entered into the realm of parody as Foster Hirsch has stated, but listening to the brief example in the "Daily Dose" with Hirsch's comment in mind I did find myself thinking that the lines could have been written by Neil Simon or Mel Brooks! Charles McGraw is always so committed to his character that he makes the style of speech his own. But perhaps those same lines spoken by a Peter Falk or a Gene Wilder would make it quite a different film, indeed! Nonetheless, screenwriters needed to find NEW clichés and metaphors for the somewhat philosophical utterances of the next generation  Hard Boiled Detective.

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I agree Charles McGraw is an amazing, solid character actor (and so underrated) in spite of such a long list filmography.  His small part but strong performance as the fishing boat captain in The Birds (1963) helped make the drama of "bird attacks" more believable.  It's also interesting that in the short-lived TV series Casablanca (1955) he played Humphrey Bogart's role as Rick.

He also played the State Trooper in Stanley Kramer's, "The Defiant Ones"

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There’s nothing in this clip that I see as a parody or even a deconstruction of film noir.  Granted, I’ve only seen the first three minutes, but those three minutes seem to be playing the genre straight.  The snappy dialogue may seem a little forced, but I feel like it’s more like the screenwriters were trying to emulate the writing style of Chandler and Hammett.  The opening has a lot of the film noir elements we’re used to: trains, banter, a dangerous femme fatale (or at least discussion of her), and a hard-boiled detective with his less attractive partner.  I will have to see the film to determine whether or not the film evolves into something more self-aware later on, but even if it doesn’t, The Narrow Margin still has an interesting opening that sets up the premise well.

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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"? Both passengers in the taxi poked their heads in the window in the same way – it looked a little silly - and were using the clipped speech of the noir style. One of the men dusting off the front of the other after lighting his cigar – again, it’s amusing in this context and I don't think we would have seen that in earlier noir films. The way the woman is mentioned seems to be a joke – “Sixty cent special, cheap, flashy, strictly poison under the gravy…” It’s an exaggeration of how the femme fatale was described in other noir films.

 

-- 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? Darkness, the sound of the screeching train, quick, clipped speech. The train coming at the audience in a menacing way, as if it will crash into us, feels like it’s trying to grab us and shake us up from the start. And the two detectives are a familiar part of film noir.

 

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We can hear the train while we see the opening RKO logo and then it cuts to night with the train coming and the title seems to blast on the screen after a blast of light and sound. It reminds me of earlier films noir we've seen, it doesn't seem to add anything new and fresh to film noir. Maybe the rest of the film will have something new and inventive. I can see why Foster Hirsch criticized the dialogue, it does kinda sound like a parody of films noir.

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Can somebody please tell me if the opening scene here, when the one train passes the other,  is a recycled clip from one of the earlier movies in our course "Crack-Up" with Pat O'Brien.  Not the dream sequence scene when the trains crash, but the later scene when he remembers what really happens.  I could be crazy, but it seems so familiar.  Maybe I've just watched too many of these movies is the last few weeks and they're all starting to run together.  Anyways, it's sad it's coming to an end.  I'll miss talking with all of you.

I think it could be some of the scene when Pat O'Brien retraces his steps on the train.  One of the articles we were assigned mentioned the re-use of scenes as a money saver and how they would patch together montages at a very fast pace so the audience didn't get time to recognize the scenes (too funny).

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I see evidence of The Narrow Margin picking up certain common characteristics of films noir, but without seeing the entire picture I don't think I would even begin to call this a "burlesque." Like a lot of the other films we seen, this opening throws the viewer directly into the action. The train rushes by at high speed, framed on the diagonal, while the whistle blasts with a screeching blare. There's no set up for this image. The movie just starts with action and we are thrust into the beginning of the story with no sense of where this train is going, whether someone is going to arrive or depart, and no real idea what the story line will entail. Perhaps the dialog is a little hokey, but this seems like a B film from the start, so I'm not really expecting something Chandler might have written on a good day.

 

I think for a subject to be ripe for parody, it needs to be a subject that has become sort of hackneyed to begin with. That sort of response takes several years to develop. So it may well be that the writers and directors of The Narrow Margin, after watching films noir develop since the 40s were able to appropriate the clichés of the genre that had developed over those many years. Having just seen a good number of films noir within the past few weeks, it is hard to see what particular tropes of films noir have become overused and trite. So in short, I don't think I have the depth of knowledge about the full range of noir films to determine whether The Narrow Margin is "inverting the noir mold."

 

Although Charles McGraw seems to have starred in every other B noir shown this summer, he is a new presence to me. I'm sure I've seen him in several films, but probably not in these films where he assumes a leading role. I'm finding that he's quite a good actor in a solid, granite like way. I can't see him intentionally playing his role in this film as anything but sincere and straightforward.

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The first thing that stands out to me in this clip is the sudden appearance of the film's title, nearly punching us in the face at great speed, mirroring the speed of the oncoming train. There's a mad rush to the film's early momentum, promising a foreboding threat and a hell of a thrill ride. This, along with the night, city environment and hard-boiled dialogue represent the trappings of a classic noir. As far as whether the dialogue is a "parody of the hard-boiled school," I don't see that in this early clip. The quality of the dialogue seems no different than any other film noir of the era, and it's certainly not an exaggeration of it.

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At the beginning of this course the question was posed as to whether film noir is a genre, movement or a style. I think it’s clear that it was a movement before it was well-formed. When The Maltese Falcon was being made, it wasn’t intentionally done in the noir style because it hadn’t been defined yet.

 

When The Narrow Margin was made in 1952, the noir style was well established and it seems to self-consciously revel in that style.

 

I believe that’s what brought noir to an end; it ran its course. When it transitioned from a movement, that was simply done for art’s sake, to a self-conscious style that was implemented strictly for commerce, it became an over-the-top parody of itself.

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There’s nothing in this clip that I see as a parody or even a deconstruction of film noir.  Granted, I’ve only seen the first three minutes, but those three minutes seem to be playing the genre straight.  The snappy dialogue may seem a little forced, but I feel like it’s more like the screenwriters were trying to emulate the writing style of Chandler and Hammett.  The opening has a lot of the film noir elements we’re used to: trains, banter, a dangerous femme fatale (or at least discussion of her), and a hard-boiled detective with his less attractive partner.  I will have to see the film to determine whether or not the film evolves into something more self-aware later on, but even if it doesn’t, The Narrow Margin still has an interesting opening that sets up the premise well.

In your own words you've described why this film clip shows self-awareness and borders on parody:

 

"The snappy dialogue may seem a little forced, but I feel like it’s more like the screenwriters were trying to emulate the writing style of Chandler and Hammett." - Unoriginal, unnatural sounding dialogue

 

"The opening has a lot of the film noir elements we’re used to: trains, banter, a dangerous femme fatale (or at least discussion of her), and a hard-boiled detective with his less attractive partner." - A formula for film noir

 

I would say the very lack of originality and use of familiar elements says the filmmaker set out to make a film noir and was willing to use all the cliches available so the viewer would identify it immediately. That is self-awareness to me.

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