Andrew’s reviewed a few of them already so now it’s my turn to review a Peter Hyams movie. 1990’s Narrow Margin is a slightly better-than-average thriller, not really memorable, but quite watchable if it comes on TV. It’s also a little too convenient at times and, thanks to technology, it falls into the “Couldn’t be made today” category.
Carol Hunnicut (Anne Archer) witnesses the murder of Michael Tarlow by crime boss Leo Watts. Apparently, Tarlow spent some of Watts’ money without his permission. Los Angeles district attorney Robert Caulfield (Gene Hackman) is desperate to put Watts behind bars. He travels up to a secluded cabin in Canada where Hunnicut’s been hiding. She refuses to go back to LA but they’re ambushed by Watts’ goons (who seem to pop up everywhere). They drive to a train station and board a passenger train bound for Vancouver. Two of Watts’ men are also on the train but they don’t know what Hunnicut looks like. Caulfield has an encounter with an attractive woman and believes the goons think she’s Hunnicut. He also spots a mysterious man who turns out to be a transit cop... and not long for this world. The climax takes place on top of the train... Caulfield dispatches the goons as well as the attractive woman who it turns out is also a villain. We also find out there’s a traitor in the DA’s office, which explains why the villains always know Caulfield’s plans. Hunnicut testifies against Watts and all is well in the world.
There’s really not much to it. Reportedly, Hyams was looking for an older movie to adapt and stumbled across 1952’s Narrow Margin, starring Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor. I vaguely remember it and honestly, I get it confused with another transit-themed mystery: 1950’s Union Station, starring William Holden. (Now where’s that remake?) As I said above, it’s one of those movies that couldn’t be made today because we all have cell phones. Caulfield has no way of contacting his superiors, the villains disable the train’s communications gear, and the only radio aboard belongs to the aforementioned transit cop who gets killed. So what’s a hero to do?
The acting elevates things somewhat above B-movie level. Gene Hackman is the bespectacled Caulfield and his presence is always appreciated. He’s one of those actors who does well both with quiet moments and action and he makes everything sound believable even when it isn’t. Anne Archer is Hunnicut and I’m pleased to say she takes a role that could’ve been “damsel in distress” or “stuck-up bitch” and makes it work (mostly). The rest of the supporting cast features some familiar character actors. Leo Watts is played by Harris Yulin. He does “menacing” very well. The late, great J.T. Walsh is Tarlow and James B. Sikking is Nelson, the main goon aboard the train. (Sikking also appeared in Hyams’ Outland and The Star Chamber.) Nelson’s associate Wootton is played by Nigel Bennett and Susan Hogan plays Kathryn, the attractive woman whose height quickly becomes a disadvantage while standing on top of the train. J.A. Preston is Hackman’s boss and M. Emmet Walsh shows up (all too briefly) as a detective who travels to Hunnicut’s cabin with Caulfield... and gets killed.
recent interview with him and, while I’m usually not very good with this sort of thing, if you read between the lines, you can tell he’s kinda resigned to the fact that he never quite became as big as Spielberg. The man is talented and he had a pretty good run. Capricorn One, Outland, and 2010 I consider the perfect “comfort food sci-fi trilogy” and I mean that as a compliment. Stay Tuned is a childhood favorite. Timecop and Sudden Death are over-the-top cheese. The Star Chamber and The Relic were okay but The Presidio and Running Scared didn’t do it for me, though I know the latter has its fans. I have yet to see his earliest work nor have I seen Hanover Street, End of Days, or his latest: Enemies Closer (available at your local Redbox). He’s only had one major clusterf--k and that was A Sound of Thunder. The short version: it wasn’t his fault! He and James Cameron even collaborated on a killer asteroid script which was never made.
In addition to directing, Hyams wrote the screenplay and served as his own DP. The film exhibits his trademark use of naturalistic lighting. I say “naturalistic” because people say he only uses “natural light.” Hyams scoffs at this: when you’re on a soundstage, there is no natural light! His script features his usual trademarks: the names Caulfield and Tarlow (no Spota this time), referring to the bad guys as “grown-ups,” a reference to Con-Amalgamate, and the characters are so damned... sarcastic! I don’t know if this is just his personality, or his New York upbringing, but in all of the movies Hyams writes, the characters are often wise-asses: the heroes, the villains, everyone. Sometimes it sounds natural while other times it sounds too “writerly.” It works in something like Outland or Sudden Death but 2010 suffers at times from making Scheider and Lithgow too snarky. And aside from Connery’s “Think it over” in Outland, I can’t think of a “classic Hyams line” that anyone would remember. (Again, I have yet to see all of his movies.)
“This guy's lying – he’s a train robber!”
“What would I want with a train?”