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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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As in Strangers On A Train, this opening sequence is created to deliberately disorient the viewer; a loud train whistle under the RKO logo, and another as the opening shot of an onrushing train is seen.

The disorientation continues as the train rushes by behind the credits, as you're trying to read them.

 

Another element of film noir then occurs: "the schedule," or "the plan," as we see granite-faced, gravel-voiced Charles McGraw give orders about the luggage to the Red Cap. He wants everything to be in order. But we know what happens to "schedules" and "plans" - and "order," for that matter - in this genre.

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I need to make a correction to my earlier post.

I would swear that I saw the beginning of this clip showing a Paramount logo with the stars being blown away whilst the train was passing by. At first I thought there was a technical difficulty and ran it again and still saw the same image. It appeared super imposed on another image.

Just now I replayed the opening scene and see it's indeed RKO. 

I don't know what the problem was and I guess I should have known better. Geez...all is well now, and I think I know what I'm doing.

My apologies.

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Walter is a little much for a noir character.  Quick to flash a couple of bucks or light a match.  Trenchcoat, fedora.  Constantly looking around, as if he's watching for someone to come out of the shadows.  He spits his words out quickly, biting off the end of every sentence as a sign of dismissal.  He doesn't have time for small talk.  He refers to the woman as a "dish" and a "dame", calls her "cheap" ("worth 60 cents") and "flashy", and says she was "married to a hood".  And "poison under the gravy" - Walter is more Marlowe than Marlowe!


 


 


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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.

 

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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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.

 

So true, a solid actor, even in much smaller roles such as the state police captain going after Tony Curtis & Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones (1958) he made his presence as a no-nonsense kind of guy known in every scene.  And for an actor known mainly for his noirish type characters, he pulls off a role as a warrior in a sword & sandal flick just as well...Spartacus (1960).  What a character!

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The opening credits are very noir:  night shoot; bright light piercing the dark; no music, only sound effects.  These seem to be traits of later, 1950s, noir films.  I would know this was a noir film, or trying to be a noir, in the first twenty-five seconds.

 

The dialogue at the train station seems very noir; the tough guy brisk and clipped words.  The porter spoke better English than the detectives. 

 

“What about this dame, Mister Crystal Ball?”  I can hear hints of Scarlet Street’s Edward G. Robinson in the delivery of that line.

 

“Sixty cent special.  Cheap, flashy, strictly poison under the gravy.”  I hear Humphrey Bogart in Maltese Falcon.

 

There is something odd in the verbiage, not quite over the top, but it’s brimming there.

 

 

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I need to make a correction to my earlier post.

I would swear that I saw the beginning of this clip showing a Paramount logo with the stars being blown away whilst the train was passing by. At first I thought there was a technical difficulty and ran it again and still saw the same image. It appeared super imposed on another image.

Just now I replayed the opening scene and see it's indeed RKO. 

I don't know what the problem was and I guess I should have known better. Geez...all is well now, and I think I know what I'm doing.

My apologies.

 

Never mind Jake!  It's Chinatown!  

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I don't know. Everything seems over the top to me. More scrambled than hard-boiled. Just for fun, picture a less-yappy Lawrence Tierney type, (or as he was known, "a frightening force of nature"), disembarking a 'steamy night train'. Taking a hard look around. Getting in a cab. "Tolerating'' his blabbering sidekick, only responding with, "I know what she looks like". Who's she? Who are they, really? What are we in for? The margin is already getting narrower. Sorry, I'll stop re-writing the script. It's just where my mind wandered. FYI, McGraw sadly suffered a very tragic and untimely accidental death, (you can look it up). I like the film overall. I like McGraw, type-cast as he was. But to the point, I see it less as parady and more as repitition. Yes, I agree the uniqueness of film noir was dramatically thinning. That's just my 2 cents.

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Snippet of conversation between the two characters in trench coats and fedoras:

 

-“What about this dame, Mr. Crytsal Ball?”

-“A dish.”

-“What Kind of a dish?”

-“Sixty-cent Special. Cheap. Flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy.”

-“Amazing. How do you know all this?”

-“Well, she was married to a hoodlum, wasn’t she?”

 

Oh, man! TOTAL convention of the "Hard-Boiled School" of dialog!!! But...

 

I don't care, I still LOVE it! The slang may be dated, but you can totally pick the meanings out from the context.

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I am new enough to film noir that I'm not sure I can tell whether a film is burlesquing the noir style or is a true noir. So if I were watching this clip without the prompting or questions I doubt I would come to he conclusion that this is a burlesque. That said, I can kind of see it, since everything is ramped up a notch-- the dialogue, the train sounds over the credits, the fast cutting, camera angles, etc. I'll be interested to watch this film and see where it goes.

 

On a slightly different note, does anyone know if there is an official list of which films are A and which are B? Some are obvious but others... I don't really know. I would love to know if someone has compiled this somewhere so I can check it when I watch a film from this era.

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TCM is running the trailer for Narrow Margin, this week, catch it if you can.  "Fear and Danger across a continent".  The dialog and the titles themselves are a parody.  Then watch the movie Friday.  they even have an interview with the director, I believe, were he talkd about the music and everything, recreating the sound of the train, beginning with the femme fatale filing her nails so it sounds like the engines wheels moving.  You can tell it is poking fun at noir.

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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.

 

 

I agree that for the most part the dialog is appropriate for the scene we viewed.  Except for the "iconographic depiction of women" listed by Foster Hirsch in his excerpt from The Dark Side of the Screen, I believe he was mostly pointing out Marie Windsor's dialog as sounding like a parody which would be in a scene/scenes most of us have yet to see.  

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50-50 hind sight is a wonderful thing. I wonder if Mr. Hirsch wrote his opinion on "Narrow Margin" in the mid-1950s I doubt he'd come to the same conclusion. He'd have to have seen numerous preceding films to come to the same conclusion, to say nothing of having read the minds of writers and  director. As far as I'm concerned, the dialogue fits the characters and the humorous moment of the fat man blocking the train corridor (justifying the film's title?) is priceless. To write this film off as parody or satire of the film noir style is criminal.

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I agree with some of the previous posters that some of the dialogue in the cab sounded more like a take-off on noir, cornier, less hardboiled. But it still worked. "60 cent special...poison under the gravy." Those are still great lines, even if the tongue is a little in the cheek. The arrival of the train & overall darkness is well within the noir standard. I thought the use of the train whistle at the beginning (at the shot of the RKO credit) was effective in establishing movement. This is a short, fast-moving film if memory serves me and that helps kick things in motion.

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If I had not read the words of Foster Hirsch, I don't think I would have thought this scene was part of a film that "signaled the end of a movie cycle." However, I definitely would have though something was off.

 

First that opening minute: the RKO logo accompanied by train sounds cuts away to an approaching train with a suddenly blinding light. Abruptly it cuts to the film's title in huge letters and the loud, jarring ringing of the alarms at a train crossing. The movie title slides to the right and we see a sign: Chicago Yard Limit. It's tilted at a peculiar angle; that image slides away and the camera moves to the right and we see a train that is slowly coming to a stop. That sequence has noir elements (night, train, shadows, sounds) but it is comical, not noirish to me, especially the "swooshing" camera and odd train noises.

 

Then we get to the dialogue of the two cops. I don't know that it's a parody of the hard-boiled school (it is only a few minutes), but it is definitely poorly written. It sounds like something I would write if I attempted to do a noir screenplay!

 

"Your cigar is dead."

"I'm thinking of changing brands for something with a self-starter on it."

 

"What kind of dish?"

"A 60-cent special."

 

"What kind of dame would marry a hood?"

 

The entire sequence looks and sounds like someone had the checklist for film noir and marked things off without quite having the talent to pull it off.

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     "Narrow Margin introduces familiar noir elements such as the title, night on night lighting, a bright train headlight coming right at you and the dark smoky atmosphere outside the train. Walter Brown steps out of the train in his Humphrey Bogart trench coat, fedora, dour attitude, voice and sardonic quick wit .Perhaps all of these imitative aspects are exaggerated and seem repetitive to the viewer. I don't see it as parody. i did find the dialogue between the two detectives to be cliche.Walter's partner seems like the typical cigar smoking straight man with the corny lines.

Cop;    What about this dame, Mr. Crystal Ball?

Walter: A dish

Cop:     What kind of a dish?

Walter:  The 60 cent special. Cheap. Flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy.

    The writing is not top quality, but its kind of humorous. The woman's identity remains a mystery.to the audience. I am curious to meet her. The movie seems interesting and exciting so far. I will watch it and determine if it's a parody. 

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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.

 

True of all genres and cinematic styles will sprout with innovation, experimentation, reach a popular "formula", become overdone and then die out or eventually lose its audience.  The good news is it's only a temporary death until a new crop of film makers come up with a fresh approach and style.  As you mentioned the Westerns.  Popular as silent movies, eventually better with sound, run their course, end up quarantined to television. Widescreen & color (and John Ford) to the rescue.  Plays out in the late 50s.  It takes the Italians (Sergio Leone & Clint Eastwood) to re-invent the Western in the 60s. That plays out, runs it's course & plays dead until appropriately enough Clint Eastwood re-invents the Western with The Unforgiven. We haven't seen the last of film noir, it will just be re-invented and so on. There is still hope!

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Daily Dose of Darkness #26: I Hear the Train a Comin’

(Opening Scene from The Narrow Margin)

 

• 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 personally don’t think these opening scenes are a parody or that they are an attempt to burlesque noir conventions. In fact, I liked the way we hear a train whistle over the RKO company logo, see a night train enter the frame with its headlight getting caught in the camera lens and creating a glaring light, and then immediately switch to two men disembarking. The dialogue seems a little dated to me: Where the heck can you get a 60 cent dinner special? But I must admit that if, let’s say, a Martin Scorsese–type character pointed a gun at me on a dark street corner and said something like, “Look, dame, give me all your dough,” it would feel like a film noir moment, I’m pretty 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?

The approaching night train is a variation on themes starting in the silent era. Wasn’t the Buster Keaton film The General filmed on a train? Anyway, I still liked the headlight glaring in the camera lens. I really liked the camera work: the speedy zoom emulating the passing train and the way the film title appeared out of the headlight glare. It’s comforting to know that I’m going to see the film noir I signed on to see.

One thing that could be changed: “The Humphrey Bogart trench coat” could be updated for poor Charles McGraw! I know B pictures very often had low budgets, but that’s one piece of wardrobe that could use an update.

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I would not have thought of this as parody if it hadn't been mentioned in the intro.  Maybe it's not very creative dialog, but if they were trying to do parody it would be a lot more far-fetched, or have humerous double entendres (aka a Mel Brooks movie).  And actually the opening credits were some of the best noir techniques I've seen.  I loved the light of the train windows flashing through the title, and on-off-on-off the "Chicago Yard Limit" sign. 

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One of the things I noticed about the intro in today's Daily Dose is that there is no music during the credits/opening scene...only the sounds of the train and the station. Music is so important in setting the stage--especially during the credits/opening scene, when you can usually tell what kind of movie it will be just by the opening music. So it must be rather significant that there is no music here. Is this one of the changes in film noir that happened in the 50s?

 

"The Narrow Margin" is one of my "new" favorites--I hadn't heard of it until Ben Mankiewicz recommended it as his pick of the month in the TCM guide a year or two ago. I checked it out and really enjoyed it and am looking forward to watching it again.

 

Plus it contains one of my all-time favorite lines: "She's the sixty cent special. Cheap. Flashy. Sticky poison under the gravy." lol. So noir. :)

 
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I would not have thought of this as parody if it hadn't been mentioned in the intro.  Maybe it's not very creative dialog, but if they were trying to do parody it would be a lot more far-fetched, or have humerous double entendres (aka a Mel Brooks movie).  And actually the opening credits were some of the best noir techniques I've seen.  I loved the light of the train windows flashing through the title, and on-off-on-off the "Chicago Yard Limit" sign. 

 

Well, the film isn't actually a parody, and it's not actually meant to be funny. The parodic elements aren't very evident in the opening scene, but there are plenty of things that happen later that twist what you expect to happen in a noir film.

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True of all genres and cinematic styles will sprout with innovation, experimentation, reach a popular "formula", become overdone and then die out or eventually lose its audience.  The good news is it's only a temporary death until a new crop of film makers come up with a fresh approach and style.  As you mentioned the Westerns.  Popular as silent movies, eventually better with sound, run their course, end up quarantined to television. Widescreen & color (and John Ford) to the rescue.  Plays out in the late 50s.  It takes the Italians (Sergio Leone & Clint Eastwood) to re-invent the Western in the 60s. That plays out, runs it's course & plays dead until appropriately enough Clint Eastwood re-invents the Western with The Unforgiven. We haven't seen the last of film noir, it will just be re-invented and so on. There is still hope!

 

 

You're touching on a topic that had occurred to me while taking this course...and especially during Prof. Edwards' recent lectures and discussions re the social and cultural dynamics that fueled noir and made it so popular.  

 

One can see many of the same elements that spawned noir in the Forties and Fifties very much at play today; perhaps even more so: the influx of diverse influences and forms of artistic expression; a different kind of war (against terrorism) no less global in scope than WWII, but one that is much less defined, with no end in sight, and where winning/losing no longer even seem applicable concepts; a political arena, both domestic and foreign, more charged, fractious and dysfunctional than anything we experienced half a decade ago; continued upheaval and uncertainty in gender identity, sexual dynamics and family roles; the most volatile and inequitable economic and finance structure we've witnessed since the Great Depression; increasing pressures from the environment and the looming challenges that poses; and our alarming self-absorption and loss of confidence and purpose as a people.  

 

And that's just for openers.  

 

Given such a bleak and challenging landscape we might rightfully expect to be in the midst of a veritable renaissance of noir...but that simply hasn't happened.   Why?  What's missing?   What's changed?   

 

I suppose answering such questions could become a course of it's own.

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With this opening of "The Narrow Margin," we're challenged to note ways in which "noir conventions are being burlesqued."

 

Brief though it is, we notice the dialogue is even more slangy than usual. In just about fifteen seconds, a woman is described as a "dame," a "dish," a "60 cent special," "cheap," "flashy," who's "strictly poison under the gravy" because "what kind of a dame would marry a hood?" The fact that it one of the toughest of tough guys, Charles McGraw, delivering this in his flat, gravelly tone emphasizes just how far we've come from Bogart and Powell tossing out Chandler bon mots. That description, of course, fits the stereotypical femme fatale.

 

For those who haven't yet seen the picture, I'll say no more, other than it enjoyably subverts many of the expectations set up here. Is it parody, maybe not, but it sure looks like the filmmakers were having fun.

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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.

It is, such is the way of stock footage.

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