The single light bulb of interrogation now shines on Marie Windsor as Mrs. Frankie Neall in the model B classic picture THE NARROW MARGIN (1952). The subject is the Femme Fatale. The term Femme Fatale is defined loosely as “a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations.” Film Noir is a literal breeding ground for this type of woman ranging from Lizabeth Scott (TOO LATE FOR TEARS), Jane Greer (OUT OF THE PAST), Barbara Stanwyck (DOUBLE INDEMNITY) and personal favorite Claire Trevor in BORN TO KILL. THE NARROW MARGIN (1952) features one of the best both for venom and poignancy.
To have one actor shine you must have a second actor doing their job well. It is a give and take situation with actors; letting the other have a moment. In film, that becomes the closeup or not making movement to steal a scene. Charles McGraw as Det. Sgt. Walter Brown plays brilliantly with Marie Windsor as wife of hood Frankie Neall whose testimony is needed concerning pay off operations. Mrs, Neall carries her late husband’s secret list and since it contains important pay off names, naturally, certain parties will do anything to stop her from getting to her destination. Sgt. Brown is reluctantly pressed into protecting her solo on a train trip after his long time partner Sgt. Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) is gunned down on the stairs of a tenement house during Mrs. Neall’s pick-up to the station.
Charles McGraw, in his trademark growl, gives the character of Mrs. Frankie Neall one of the best intros to a character in all of the genre: even before the audience meets her. Driving to the initial meeting, Sgt. Brown (McGraw) remarks that he already knows what she is like before they see each other. His partner (Beddoe) is mystified by Brown’s ‘special power’ since no one has met her yet. Testy Sgt. Brown tells him that, “She’s the sixty-cent special. Cheap. Flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy.” This rich line sets up the audience for what is to come.
The policeman guarding Mrs. Frankie Neall is relived to get away from this duty. Forbes asks if the music they hear is for welcome. The policeman says “YUu don’t know how welcome. Turn that thing off. Your escorts here.” Director Richard Fleisher cuts to a shot of the figure looking up from the phonograph with the requisite dangling cigarette and with smoke rising she moves to the men. After an introduction that they are from Los Angeles, she says, “How nice. How is Los Angeles?” then looks at Brown and blows smoke in his face asking if his “sunburn wore off,” giving him a lingering smirk stare.
Mrs. Frankie Neal is dressed in a tight, white, patterned party dress which shows off Marie Windsor. She has the classic dark hair of the evil woman in Victorian literature with a very expressive face with cheek bones and eyes that will give you that “thousand yard stare” or put you into more pleasurable pursuits. Mrs. Neall argues that she can pack her own things and is reluctant to go with them since she is “taking a big chance.” She is an independent woman who will not easily go with anyone or anything. She even lets the list drop instead of placing it in Sgt Brown’s out stretched hand in another mark of contempt for the proceedings; yet she knows she has to go.
The plans change with the death of Sgt. Brown’s partner. On the train the two become travelling husband and wife. Sgt. Brown and Mrs. Frankie Neal snipe at each other in the car going to the train as Brown wonders what he will tell Forbe’s wife. Hard as nails Mrs. Frankie Neal says, “It’s fine protection an old man who walks right into it an a weeper.” No sentiment at all, only her life and getting to the destination. Once on the train, the two become dependent on one another. More so when they find that one of the killers is on the train. In many of the scenes Brown and Mrs. Neal are so close they could smell each other’s breath, undoubtedly due to the small sets of this B picture plus they are in a train compartment. Still, that proximity makes it possible for a hint of romantic entanglement which may or may not happen.
Brown wants Mrs. Neall to stay out of sight in the compartment. This forces him to bring her food and relieve her boredom. Playing the portable phonograph and playing solitaire are her only amusements. Mrs. Neall doesn’t dress to not attract attention either as she attires herself in a black (almost) peignoir type gown and jewelry . This is a woman not comfy with hiding or being told what to do. She is accustomed to standing up for herself and undeniably told to look beautiful to be on the arm of a mobster. Neall is accustomed to being the center of attention, hence she gives it to Brown verbally when he meets assorted characters and blonde train passenger Jacquelyn White (Ann Sinclair) and her precocious son in the dining car. This delays Brown bringing back her meal. She is none too happy about the delay.
Subtle moments of jealousy on the surface from Mrs Neall toward Jacqueline White and Brown’s involvement with her. Is it a reflection of a love/hate or in this case to keep the focus on herself and the business at hand? The killers are on the train and they know where she is. They will make a move as the destination gets closer and times more desperate. The change of heart, a change of direction, identities revealed, and a desperate reach inside a closet all come into play in something that is not what it seems.
Marie Windsor is towering in THE NARROW MARGIN (1952). She invests the role of Mrs. Frankie Neall with a desperation and purpose which may seem over the top at times. She is a flirt with men; especially Brown, and ready to flash those eyes in any direction. She is proud and wants to live most likely more than ever, yet she draws both Forbes and Brown into her orbit, leading to tragedy.
Marie Windsor, who was born Emily Marie Bertleson, was in many noir and B pictures. She became their queen, much like later fifties science fiction queen Beverly Garland. Windsor is variations of the role, but none quite hit the temperature of Mrs. Frankie Neall, due to the fact she had the brilliant Charles McGraw to play against in scenes of venom and caustic cynicism. Brown and Mrs. Neall are classic trapped’ figures moving literally toward a fate.
The closest Marie Windsor id get to this level was as the scheming wife Sherry Beatty with eternal fall guy Elisha Cook Jr. in Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (1956).
THE NARROW MARGIN (1952) is all the more richer for the work of Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, and a host of characters that move in and out of their influence. Brown has punch-ups similar to those in the James Bond picture FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963), and absentmindedly going in the wrong sleeping berth to having Jacqueline White’s child spot his gun in his jacket. It is all part of this trip with killers on the loose. Every train must reach its destination and this one does at a station in a way few would expect.