Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer, 1952)

An introduction; this is a paper I ghost wrote for a friend taking a film class. It was the first paper I've written since college and was a fun exercise, despite being unethical. I think I made some interesting points and would like to share it. In other words; SPOILER ALERT.

The American Film Noir style of the 1940s and 50s is easily recognizable by its use of lighting, cinematography and femme fatale characters pitted against amoral male protagonist. Often a society outsider, the male protagonist is typically an anti-hero in the form of a small time crook, hard-boiled detective or lone-wolf private eye . This archetypal film noir male character straddles the line between good and evil and learns to trust nothing except his personal code of integrity and professional responsibility . The film, The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer, 1952) deconstructs “good and bad” and tests the male protagonist’s code of integrity.

The Narrow Margin begins with Detective Walter Brown and his partner discussing their unhappiness with the assignment to escort and protect a gangster window, Mrs. Neall, turned witness. Brown establishes himself as tough cynic who will perform his duty but will not enjoy doing it. Mrs. Neall is a sexy, ungrateful and volatile femme fatale that proves to be deadly when Brown’s partners is shot and killed by a hit man aiming for Mrs. Neall. Leaving Brown isolated and alone he must single handedly escort and protect Mrs. Neal cross-country on a train. Along the train journey Brown encounters a Fat man who may or may not be a hit man, an attractive innocent blonde traveling with her son and gangsters. Brown is propositioned with a bribe by a gangster/businessmen to turn over Mrs. Neall to the “bad guys”. Surprisingly, Mrs. Neall supports the bribe because they only want her “list” and she is willing to split the money. The offer is very tempting for Detective Brown but he refuses on loyalty to his dead partner, justice and above all himself. He tells Mrs. Neall that once you accept a bribe from the mafia one is forever in the service of the mafia, and one is no longer his own man.

“Of course I’ve been tempted. I’m human like anybody else. But to spend the rest of my time worrying when I’ll be caught up with some hoodlum holding a first mortgage of my life, payable on demand! Naah. No kind of money is worth that.”

Brown is faced with another dilemma when the gangsters misidentify the blonde Mother, Ann Sinclair, as the gangster’s widow, Mrs. Neall. Brown has endangered the life of an innocent civilian, Ann Sinclair and he must protect both women and child. While Brown is informing Anne Sinclair that she is in danger, the gangsters succeed in murdering Mrs. Neall. However, her death reveals that she is in fact a detective for internal affairs, on a case to catch Brown in an act of corruption, and not Mrs. Neall. The plot is twisted further when Ann Sinclair reveals she is in fact the real Mrs. Neall traveling incognito to Los Angeles. Brown does catch a break when the fat man reveals himself as a train detective and aids Brown in redemption by escorting and protecting the real Mrs. Neall. Detective Brown succeeds but as the lead hit man is ushered away in handcuffs he tells Brown that he is just one hit man in a very large organization with many branches. An especially poignant point after Brown discovers that his own police department is responsible for his partner’s death and nearly harassed him into corruption. Mrs. Neall and Detective Brown ignore the unavoidable danger and proudly walk to the courthouse in broad daylight.

The Narrow Margin distorts “good and bad” by having key characters hide their true identity from the audience and protagonist, Detective Brown. This revelation of identity is a constant theme throughout the film. When the fat man that follows Detective Brown around the train reveals himself as an officer for the railroad company in the last third of the film; his identity changes from bad to good. Similarly, a gangster that confronts Brown with a bribe turns out to be a legitimate businessman who has never carried a gun and does not have a police record. Through the eyes of society a businessman is good, and a gangster is bad. The assumption that Ann Sinclair, the widow of a mafia boss, is a typical femme fatale and thus guilty by association is another example of revelation of true identity. Mrs. Neall, an innocent character that is duped by her husband when it is revealed that he was part of organized crime. Although Anne is perceived as “bad” in society's eyes, her innocence proves otherwise. Along with Mrs. Neall's flip-flop comes the conclusion that the dead mafia boss couldn’t be all bad. The mafia boss wed a “good” woman and fathered a “good” child therefore a “bad guy” must have some “good”. The final example of false identities is the ruthless internal affairs officer who is disguised as Mrs. Neal to deceive Brown into corruption. The femme fatale goes beyond bad when she uses Brown’s sense of compassion for his dead partner’s family to lure Brown into accepting a bribe. Surprisingly, the femme fatale is a detective; she should be a “good guy” representing a “good” institution. With the destruction of this institutional “good” comes the harshest blow towards Detective Brown’s integrity. Although Brown did not know it, he was being tested and he passed. Unfortunately the cost of making the grade is a dead partner and knowledge that even the institution of justice is out to get him. Isolated from both institution of “good” and “bad” Detective brown is able to walk tall with self-righteousness.

The endearing style of film noir goes beyond its cynical plots points and amoral characters to its use of lighting, camera angles and expressionistic framing . The Narrow Margin is especially note worthy for its innovative uses of sound and flickering light and shadow. The Narrow Margin does not have a musical score; instead it uses diegetic rhythm of the train as a soundtrack. Also, the archetypical film noir device of Venetian blinds cutting a character’s face is replaced here by flickering light and shadow from a moving train. This device adds to the mise-en-scene of character deception. For example, the audience is lead to believe that the fat man is sinister during a scene when the train enters a tunnel. The fat man, standing watching Brown in the light with few flickering shadows is quickly sent into a reversed world of darkness with flickering light. Meanwhile, the echoing train roars to a cadence inside the tunnel. The device makes the fat man appear sinister, and his previous jovial personality is put into question. The scene is a red hearing, common for film noir’s, but it is just one of the many ways the film noir style puts character authenticity into question.

Another motif of the film’s mise-en-scene is the director and cinematographer’s expressionistic use of windows and mirrors. In a scene before the train has left the station, Brown spies out of his compartment window towards a hit man waiting on the platform. The camera shifts focus from the gangster to Brown’s reflection in the window blending the two character faces to create a new single face. This shot could be artistically interrupted as the interchangeability of policemen and gangster, a foreshadow to Brown’s challenge to beat a gangster he must become as ruthless as a gangster. The shot is also a visual metaphor for the film’s theme that nobody is who he or she appear to be. The shot also invites the audience to even doubt the authenticity of the main protagonist.

The Narrow Margin breaks down “good and bad” to be interchangeable and meaningless but constructs true morality around Detective Brown’s code of honor. In a scene where the fake Mrs. Neall attempts to persuade Brown he responds with:
“Of course I’ve been tempted. I’m human like anybody else. But to spend the rest of my time worrying when I’ll be caught up with some hoodlum holding a first
Mortgage of my life, payable on demand! Naah. No kind of money is worth that.”

Before this line, Brown uses his compassion for this dead partner and professional integrity as excuses for not accepting the gangsters offer. The true motive behind Brown’s motives are honor for himself and control over himself. Brown could never allow another man to have control over his own personal destiny. Anyone would have taken the bribe and nobody could blame Brown for taking it, but he doesn’t accept the offer and stays true to his code of integrity.

Early film noirs of the 1940s blur the line between good and bad and end nihilistically with little hope for the protagonists and society . Although The Narrow Margin is a strict film noir with its use of femme fatale, hard-boiled male leads and use of cinematography it deviates from previous noirs by including a somewhat happy ending. The silver lining is the optimism created by the characters sticking to their personal codes of integrity. The real Mrs. Neall’s code of integrity is tested after learning the truth of her husband’s death. Despite the dangers, she chooses to become a witness against organized crime. The last scene of the movie has Detective Brown, Mrs. Neall and two Los Angeles policemen rushing through the train station underground sheltering Mrs. Neall from danger. She gets fed up with the sneaking and hiding and responds to the situation.
“They’ll have to see me some time. Did it ever occur to you that I can’t keep running and hiding all my life? Right now is a good time to stop. Where are we going?”
Brown answers “The Hall of Justice, Just a few blocks away”
“Then these gentlemen will have to excuse us. We are going to walk.”
Brown grins and replies “You heard the lady”

The couple ditches the security and walk to the courthouse in broad daylight refusing to hide from danger. In the background, the persistent rhythm of the train is heard. The scene is beautiful metaphor for 1940s America shedding the cynicism of post-war society and moving forward to carefree 1950s America , despite all the obvious dangers.

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