Narrow Margin

Narrow Margin (DVD Cover)

Cast: Robert Caulfield (Gene Hackman), Carol Hunnicut (Anne Archer), Nelson (James B. Sikking), Michael Tarlow (J. T. Walsh), Dominick Benti (M. Emmet Walsh), Kathryn Weller (Susan Hogan), Jack Wootton (Nigel Bennett), Martin Larner (J. A. Preston), Harris Yulin (Leo Watts)

Director: Peter Hyams

Theatrical release: 09/21/1990
DVD Date: 03/03/2009

Rating: R
Running Time: 99 minutes

Note(s): The screenplay was adapted from an earlier film The Narrow Margin (1952), which itself was adapted from an unpublished short story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard.

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Narrow Margin

Review: In my on-going quest to watch every film starring Gene Hackman, I unearthed Narrow Margin, made in 1990 and recently re-released on DVD. The movie also stars Anne Archer, another fine actor who rarely disappoints. Narrow Margin is a remake of a 1952 film, The Narrow Margin, which I have not seen but seems to be widely considered to be one of the classic, if relatively minor, examples of film noir of the decade. The Narrow Margin was adapted by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard from their unpublished short story of the same name and their screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award in 1953.

Gene Hackman plays Los Angeles Assistant District Attorney Robert Caulfield who learns there is a witness to a murder in which mob boss Leo Watts was present, a rare opportunity to take Watts down and put him away. The witness, Carol Hunnicut (Anne Archer), has fled the country to her brother's remote cabin in Canada. Caulfield intends to bring her back to Los Angeles to testify.

He locates Carol but they come immediately under fire from above; a helicopter has tracked Caulfield to the cabin and is shooting at them. They manage to escape in her truck to a nearby train depot where they buy tickets to Vancouver, the nearest major city. Arrival isn't until the next morning, but they think they can make it ... until Caulfield spots two men also boarding the train, identifying both as hit men. They recognize him as well, but since he's alone at the time, Carol already on board, they don't know what she looks like.

As the train heads westward overnight, it becomes a cat-and-mouse game for Caulfield, keeping Carol hidden from the two men on board the train out to kill her and coming up with a way of getting them both off the train alive.

There are no surprises in Narrow Margin, virtually every frame is utterly predictable, right down to who the good guys are and who are not. But in some ways, no, make that many ways, that's the great appeal here; it doesn't deviate from the standard thriller formula by adding unnecessary subplots or ridiculous romantic interludes or irrelevant action sequences. Rather, it focuses on engaging the viewer, drawing them in with terrific performances, a taut script, and crisp direction.

For the most part, the film is beautifully shot. Not unexpectedly, the tight confinement on board the train adds to the sense of claustrophobia experienced by both Caulfield and Carol. The external scenes contribute to this, the remoteness of the area through which the train is traveling, though vast, conveying a sense of isolation. A minor quibble: the producers cut costs with some external scenes of the train by using obvious scale models; one wonders how much they actually saved versus how poor they look in the film.

The movie ends with a short scene that, quite appropriately, features Hackman's trademark smirk.

I greatly enjoyed Narrow Margin. I especially like the fact that it remained focused on its primary storyline, was suspenseful in a Hitchcockian sort of way, and featured uniformly credible performances, in particular that of Gene Hackman, who continues to impress.


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