Skip to main content

I like my side of the courtroom. The pay’s not so good, but the air is a lot better.

Narrow Margin

(SPOILERS) A lean, efficient little thriller, as you might expect from consummate journeyman Peter Hyams. As you might also expect from Hyams, Narrow Margin is unable to make that extra bound into the arena of a truly great lean, efficient little thriller. Nevertheless, this is quality B-material, with Gene Hackman doing his marvellously meat-and-potatoes darnedest to save a witness from hitmen on a train to Vancouver.

Carol Hunnicut: Protect me? You’re the one who put me in danger.

I’d suggest Hyams is permanently underrated, but I’m not sure that’s exactly right. It’s more that his talents are underappreciated; as a filmmaker, he was a craftsman rather than an auteur, despite invariably writing, directing and lensing his films. Hence working twice with Van Damme during a difficult ’90s stretch. And then Arnie, who thoroughly dissed him. But Arnie’s always one to blame his tools. Hyams had a strong – as in solid – run during the ’80s, The Presidio aside, and this represents the last of those. Yet Narrow Margin was underseen at the time and perhaps hasn’t undergone the re-evaluation it deserves.

Hyams decided to remake Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952) after seeing it on television one night (apparently Howard Hughes liked the movie so much, he once planned a redo with a couple of big stars). He follows its loose template of a cat-and-mouse on a train journey in a bid to shepherd a witness to safety. Here, though, rather than a mob boss, we have Anne Archer’s wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time blind date Carol Hunnicut witnessing JT Walsh’s mob lawyer being offed by mobster Leo Watts (Harris Yulin) and accompanying goon. She goes to ground until Hackman’s deputy DA Robert Caulfield digs her up. In Canada. Inevitably, he isn’t the only one on her trail, and before long they have fled to a train bound for Vancouver, hitmen in hot pursuit.

Caulfield: What does somebody who likes the train look like?

The movie absolutely relies on the pre-cell phone age and such concomitant ruses as cutting all communications en route. Hyams also introduces several plot turns less than deftly. It’s obvious as soon as Caulfield tells his cagey boss (JA Preston, of Hill Street Blues fame) of his scoop in front of associate Kevin McNulty that this is a red herring, that the boss is a good guy and it’s McNulty who will do him a wrong ’un. Which he duly does when Caulfield later confides in him. Later, Caulfield strikes up conversation with a widow (Susan Hogan), his suspicions focussed on the morbidly obese passenger (BA “Smitty” Smith) who has been watching him. Naturally, the widow is the “third man” on the train, while fatty turns out to be railroad security.

Such unvarnished plot mechanics don’t really don’t dent the greater well-oiled engine, though. Hyams knows how to keep up the suspense, and he couldn’t have a more serviceable lead than Hackman. It’s the kind of role you might imagine Harrison Ford in, albeit Ford would have passed on it as a little routine (he was still a few decades from Firewall). It might have been better to reveal Caulfield was a decorated marine earlier in the proceedings, as there’s a whole action sequence in a washroom where you’re wondering how come a lawyer’s so handy (and even knowing how come he’s so handy, it fails to explain his ability to dive to safety through a tiny window).

Caulfield: First you’ve lost your briefcase and now you’ve lost someone. You guys ought to be more careful.

Sadly, Archer isn’t very well catered for; she was so indelible as the wife in Fatal Attraction (a role with some memorable agency), yet she appeared consigned to playing the other half subsequently (Mrs Jack Ryan) even when she wasn’t (here). Mostly, though, this lack of characterisation is indicative of how stripped back Hyams’ show is. It’s all about Caulfield dodging and interacting with the bad guys, led by Nelson (James Sikking, also of Hill Street Blues but a Hyams regular since Capricorn One). Sikking’s marvellously unphased, steely menace makes him a worthy opponent for Hackman.

I’m usually in favour of movies knowing when to quit, but it’s curious that Hyams sets things up for Caufield and Hunnicut to be met by the mob at the station yet opts to wrap up with an abrupt voiceover phone call once the rooftop climax is over. Of which, Hogan’s fate is pure cheese and more suited to your average Arnie movie of the period than a thriller attempting a semblance of verisimilitude. The perfunctory ending almost suggests someone nixed a budget spend somewhere.

Narrow Margin came from Carolco during their peak period. However, while they had seven releases in 1990, of which Total Recall was by far the biggest hit, most of the rest (including the costly Air America) bombed or underperformed. To be honest, they probably shouldn’t have been surprised Narrow Margin did little business. Not only is it staple B-fodder that stays true to its roots, but Hackman headlining at this point was absolutely no guarantee of a hit. Far from it. Put him in a supporting role (No Way Out, Postcards from the Edge) or Oscar bait (Mississippi Burning) and you’re away, but give him in an ’80s-style thriller – or melodrama – and audiences didn’t want to know (Misunderstood, Twice in a Lifetime, Target, The Package, Loose Cannons and Bat*21 all stiffed). It was Unforgiven that really gave him a second wind of strong parts until he retired.

Keller: No one loves a fat man but his grocer.

Which is in no way to do Narrow Margin down; it’s that welcome movie that knows its range. It’s unpretentious, gets the job done and provides a thrilling ride. Bruce Broughton delivers a suitably tense score, and Hyams under lights effectively, creating a strong atmosphere (there’s a great shot early on of Archer silhouetted through the crack of a door). Any movie that kills off JT Walsh and M Emmet Walsh in the first twenty minutes is going to have its work cut out for it, but Narrow Margin manages to bounce back.


Popular posts from this blog

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13 ’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13 . Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures (1997) (SPOILERS) “ I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese , when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners , Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II , the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.