Remakes are rarely as good as the original movie that spawned them. Occasionally, however, inspiration is derived by rebooting a good idea, made all the more engaging by mildly updating its premise; Peter Hyam’s remake of Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952); shortened to simply, Narrow Margin (1990) being a prime example: a taut and exhilarating thriller, set primarily aboard the confined spaces of a speeding train on route through the picturesque Canadian Rockies. Fleischer’s original movie was a B-budgeted noir thriller, shot on a shoe-string for RKO and using rear projection plates to sell its wares; not bad and still worth a look, what with its square-jawed Johnny Dollar of a detective, played to perfection by rough n’ rumpled Charles McGraw, using the venomous black wigged and pancake makeup-ed Marie Windsor as his decoy; the pair pursued by ruthless hitmen.
The Narrow Margin works splendidly because of the antagonistic chemistry between McGraw and Windsor: the pitbull vs. the cobra. Narrow Margin - the remake - cannot afford such a luxury; audience’s tastes shifting to a more sympathetic heroine in peril and the butch dude who can save her from a fate worse than... Yet, herein, Hyam goes for the unexpected, casting middle-aged Gene Hackman, balding, hunched, arrogant, but physically unprepossessing, as assistant D.A. Robert Caulfield; a rough n’ ready man of wits rather than muscle, and slightly bungling as our would-be hero. Hackman’s ability to resonate as that vanguard of safety and security speaks to his considerable girth in raw talent. But Hyam’s screenplay, cribbing heavily from the precepts of Earl Felton’s original (itself, based on a story idea by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard), manages an even more remarkable coup – to give us a story we have essentially already seen, yet in a way as yet unanticipated, primarily expanding upon the location work with a heftier budget to boot.
There are several reasons why Narrow Margin succeeds where other remakes have failed; not the least in Hyam’s slick direction and moody cinematography, seamlessly matched by Bruce Broughton eerily unsettling underscore (ironically channeling shades of John Carpenter’s music from The Fog 1980). The film is also justly famous for several exhilarating set pieces; including a daring downhill escape through the Canadian Rockies in a weather-beaten pickup; the action at odds with the picturesquely remote and serene mountaintop log cabin locale. Aside: the cabin was actually built for this movie under Hyam’s specifications by production designer, Joel Schiller; Hyam having approved of the location while the mountain was still blanketed by a heavy snow. Alas, when the white and fluffy dissipated, Hyam was to discover to his horror that the site was actually a landfill, requiring considerable cleanup before principle construction on the cabin’s façade could begin.
The other reason Narrow Margin works is because of its flip-flop of the original’s essential plot twist. In The Narrow Margin, Marie Windsor’s viper-tongued Mrs. Frankie Neal is a lure to keep the criminal element at bay; masking the true identity of the real eyewitness under federal protection, Ann Sinclair (played with antiseptic Polly-Purebredism by Jacqueline White). Hyam’s remake gives us the good girl instead and first, Carol Hunnicut (Ann Archer); just the wrong gal in the wrong place at the wrong time, observing the brutal execution of high-priced attorney, Michael Tarlow (T.J. Walsh), whom she agreed to meet on a blind date, after following him up to his hotel suite at the Four Seasons Hotel. This makes Carol the only person alive who can identify Leo Watts (Harris Yulin) as the criminal kingpin and puppet master responsible for the murder, and subsequently, Robert Caulfield’s newest ‘best friend’. Caulfield has been after Watts for almost a year, piecing together his involvement in various underworld activities. Alas, what it all boils down to is a lot of circumstantial evidence. What Caulfield really needs is a flesh and blood bystander brave enough to point the finger at Watts from across the witness stand.
Fearing for her life, Carol disappears to a secluded cabin in the woods, praying against fate she will not be discovered by anyone. Instead, Caulfield arrives via truck with local law enforcement, Sgt. Dominick Benti (M. Emmett Walsh), easily dispatched by Watts’ henchman, Jack Wootton (Nigel Bennett) and his right hand, Nelson (James B. Sikking); the pair descending on this mountaintop retreat via helicopter and forcing Carol and Caulfield into a harrowing escape down the mountainside. Arriving at a remote railway station, Caulfield feigns he and Carol are married, and furthermore, that she is pregnant, securing a private car from an elderly, sympathetic couple (Antony Holland and Doreen Ramos) after realizing all available space aboard is occupied. One thing bothers Caulfield; exactly how these paid assassins knew where to find Carol. Before departing for their rendezvous at the cabin Caulfield told no one of his plans except his superior, D.A. Martin Larner (J.A. Preston), then in conference with another assistant D.A. James Dahlbeck (Kevin McNulty).
At first, Carol is a very hostile witness, refusing to testify for Caulfield against Watts. But then Caulfield appeals to her sense of morality; also to her sense of duty – reminding her Benti was sacrificed so she might live. Caulfield orders Carol to stay in their private car, hurrying to the dining car to scope out the scene. Alas, almost immediately he is confronted by Nelson and Wootton; Nelson cordially offering Caulfield a very enticing bribe if he will simply look the other way and point in the direction of the woman they, as yet, have not had a very good look at and thus cannot identify on their own. Caulfield toys with the prospect before turning down the offer.
The middle act of Narrow Margin antes up this game of cat and mouse with a scheduled midnight stop at the last depot before the train crosses the border into the U.S.; Caulfield telephoning Larner with the critical news Dahlbeck is an informant working for Leo Watts right under their noses. A confrontation between Wootton and Caulfield ensues; Caulfield barely escaping using an old western trick; tossing pebbles in the underbrush to distract the assassin while he climbs back aboard the train slowly pulling from the station platform.
Caulfield also meets Kathryn Weller (Susan Hogan), a seemingly insecure newly divorced woman of means who attempts a romantic flirtation with him in the dining car. Caulfield pretends to enjoy their conversation; perhaps, cynically conscience of the fact that if the assassins see Kathryn with him they might erroneously presume she is the woman they are after instead of Carol. Things, of course, reach a fever pitch when Caulfield suffers an attack of conscience after Nelson and Wootton have actually seen Kathryn in his company. Now he has placed two women in peril…or so it would seem. Caulfield hurries Kathryn into the conductor’s car. Having earlier befriended the train’s detective, Keller (B.A. 'Smitty' Smith), Caulfield now leaves Kathryn in his care as he hurries off to collect Carol, moving her from compartment to compartment. Returning to collect Kathryn, Caulfield discovers Keller lying dead with his throat slit. Nelson and Wootton resurface, seeing Carol for the first time and pursuing her and Caulfield to the rooftop as the train hurtles along a stretch of track perilously winding its way around some very steep and heavily wooded mountain terrain. Caulfield manages to wrestle Nelson and Wootton off the train to their deaths. But now he and Carol are confronted by Kathryn, who also proves to be part of Leo’s goon squad, pointing her pistol at the couple. At the last possible moment, Caulfield and Carol are spared the inevitable when Kathryn fails to realize a low tunnel is fast approaching. She is swept off the roof with a bone-crushing thud, leaving Carol unharmed. We dissolve to a shot of Carol testifying against Watts as Caulfield looks on with pride.
Narrow Margin is a diverting thriller; its flaws – some of them glaring – effectively camouflaged by Hyam’s expert staging; also, by the convincingly antagonistic chemistry between Gene Hackman and Ann Archer. Hey folks – it’s only a movie. So, let us set aside the fact a fair amount of the complications arising herein are the result of characters whose motivations are slightly askew to downright foolhardy: the first being the lynch pin kicking off our story - Carol going to the hotel suite of a man she has never met before, merely because he says he needs to make a private phone call. Okay, I’ll bite. Setting aside the even more obvious suggestion, Michael Tarlow might be a sexual predator, if, in fact, he needs privacy while on the telephone, then why is he bringing an unknown gal pal upstairs to overhear what he has to say? After witnessing Tarlow’s murder, Carol escapes to a friend’s cabin, offered to her for her own safety; except, this never seen friend then tattles on Carol’s whereabouts to the police, thereby bringing down the wrath of Leo Watts and his cronies. Dumb friend or some friend!
Caulfield spends a goodly portion of the plot needlessly and deliberately placing himself in peril; outfoxing and antagonizing the baddies while seriously anteing up the likelihood they will discover Carol’s hiding place aboard in his absence (or even, his presence). Kathryn’s flirtations, although obvious, are not enough for Caulfield to take her back to his compartment, even after she has been seen by Nelson and Wootton. If he had taken Kathryn to meet Carol she could have disposed of both Carol and Caulfield in one fell swoop. Again, to paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock “It’s only a movie!” In the final analysis what matters is the level of suspension in disbelief derived from these improbabilities. Is the narrative able to sustain itself on such absurdities without ever seeming far-fetched, enough to exclude one’s level of enjoyment in the story in totem? In Narrow Margin’s case, the answer is an unqualified ‘yes’.
And director, Peter Hyams has delivered a skillfully assembled thrill ride, imbued with a lingering sense of dread, despite its immeasurable scenic allure. Here is a thriller that looks very good indeed, but never forgets its primary objective is to mildly unsettle; the stark, natural landscape of the Canadian Rockies glistening in the noonday sun, the quaint ‘out-of-the-way’ cottages and depots dotting the rugged landscape perpetually tinged with a sort of unspoken code of mystery; the dimly lit and claustrophobic train interiors somehow simultaneously cozy, yet imprisoning. Narrow Margin aptly updates the premise of its noir predecessor, altering that movie’s fundamental DNA without damaging the overall impact of the remake. Hyams trades cinematographer, George E. Diskant’s economic use of B&W chiaroscuro lighting in the original for a palpably even more disquieting high-key gloss treatment. Ironically, this works just as well to maintain nail-biting levels of suspense. In the final analysis, Narrow Margin is an attractive looking, entertaining anecdote for modern-day heroism, its protagonists refreshingly not borrowed from Hollywood’s perennially revived conventions and clichés.
Carolco Picture’s turbulent history as an independent producer/distributor has led to Artisan Home Video releasing a rather lackluster DVD of Narrow Margin. It is highly unlikely we will ever see a Blu-ray. The image quality herein is not of the disaster stature befitting a goodly number of Artisan discs. Still, it’s hardly reference quality. Mercifully, we have been spared Artisan’s usual verve to digitally tinker with the image; no untoward edge effects or distracting pixelization. Alas, not much in the way of fine detail or accurately reproduced grain either. The bulk of Narrow Margin was skillfully shot under the cover of night; Hyam’s cinematography startlingly effective. There is some banding in the black levels on this video transfer, but again, not to egregious levels. Color fidelity is fairly solid, though again, nowhere near the upper echelons of perfection. Flesh tones can occasionally register an unnatural pink or ruddy orange. The best that can be said of Artisan’s efforts herein is they do not offend – much – even as they obscure the reality of what this presentation could have looked like under more stellar DVD authoring. In a perfect world this disc would have come with a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. We get a 2.0 Dolby Surround gesture instead. Ignoring the obvious limitations, it is possible to enjoy what’s here under the same rubric of good, just not great. Bottom line: Narrow Margin is something of a forgotten little gem. It deserves to be seen again. It isn’t award worthy, but it holds together in spite of itself and manages to send a few well-timed chills down the spine.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)