narrowLast Heartthrob Chapter Five:

Where the Money Comes From

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Movie: The Narrow Margin (1952)

In this episode of Last Heartthrob two characters meet inside a theater after a screening of this film and soon find themselves discussing it, and another Hollywood dream, over a cup of coffee. This is no accident.

"Among the greatest and leanest of forgotten noirs, Richard Fleischer's 1952 micro-crucible runs only 71 minutes and is a model for visual and narrative concision...Every shot counts because there's no time to piss away: Hardhead detective Charles McGraw must take mob widow Marie Windsor to court on an overnight train, and every car and station stop harbors potential assassins. Based on an unpublished story co-written by Detour's Martin Goldsmith and therefore ripe with noir dialogue written to be remembered ("You make me sick to my stomach!" "Well, use your own sink. And let me know when the target practice starts!"), Fleischer's movie also stands as a testament to McGraw's blistering, cliff-faced genuineness. An undervalued character star even in the '50s, McGraw makes lead actors then and now look like terrified schoolchildren"– Michael Atkinson, Village Voice


At a running time of only 71 minutes, The Narrow Margin maximizes story and keeps exposition to a bare minimum. It’s slightly longer than Detour, which runs only 67 minutes, and Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (Episode Seven), which runs 70 minutes. How would this movie have been different if the studio had thrown more money at it and demanded a running time of at least 90 minutes?

By 1952, all the stylistic signposts of the film noir genre were in place. Charles McGraw's hard-boiled police detective is about as hard-boiled as you get: he barks his dialogue as often as he speaks it. Mob widow Marie Windsor cracks wise with style. The film's use of shadow, camera angles, formalism versus realism are so noir that they verge on self-parody. In a film so rich with noir moments, can you pick out the most noir moment and defend your selection?

This film was produced under the Hays Code, so we know that we'll get some sort of moral ending, but the theme of corruption looms large in this story, and it runs pretty deep. In one telling moment, Detective Brown wires his office for a background check on some suspicious characters aboard the train, but before he hands it over for transmission, he scratches out the name of a well-respected businessman. What are the filmmakers' intentions in this moment?

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