Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Guest Review: Narrow Margin (1990)

by ScottDS

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.
And then there’s Peter Hyams. I watched a 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.)
I said above this movie was a little too convenient at times. Hackman and Archer are trying to get a passenger compartment. Archer says she needs to lie down because she’s pregnant and the baby is due in a matter of weeks. One problem: she does NOT look pregnant!!! She puts her hands in her sweater pockets... big deal. Then there’s the transit cop. He’s, uh... he’s fat. He even makes a joke about it. I can’t believe this guy would: a.) be a cop, and b.) work on a train where the corridors are smaller than normal. He even has to back up to let Hackman through... how efficient could this cop be? Hackman reaches Archer’s cabin via helicopter yet they can’t hear the villains’ helicopter until they start shooting. And I’m still not sure how the goons made it to the train station. Sure, they were in a helicopter but did it just land next to the train without being noticed? Hackman also fools the villains with a kid’s water gun but he gives himself away too fast – never tell the villain with the real gun that your gun is fake! [smile]
So that’s Narrow Margin. Not a classic but it’s also the kind of movie that isn’t made today. In case you haven’t noticed, the studios don’t make mid-level movies anymore: everything is either very small or very, very... very big. If this movie were released today, Hunnicut would be a 20-something model, Caulfield would be a young hotshot intern at the DA’s office, there would be some useless plot complication in the third act, and the train would explode in a flurry of CGI. The bad movies of today seem to make the average movies of yesterday appear better than they are. At least, that’s the theory!

“This guy's lying – he’s a train robber!”
“What would I want with a train?”


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I'm a big fan of Hyams, though I don't think he's a genius director or anything. I think he has an eye for good movie ideas and he presents them very clearly, competently and entertainingly. I enjoy The Presidio, The Star Chamber and Timecop much more than you. I am also a big fan of 2010 and Capricorn One. And I LOVE Outland.

I saw Narrow Margin, but it didn't make much of an impression on me and I sadly don't remember much about it.

Tennessee Jed said...

I never really considered Peter Hyams as a director, but I have seen Presidio, Star Chamber, Outland, and this one. I think I've seen Narrow Margin twice, the first time when it was released on VHS (remember the days of the rental stores before Blockbuster!) Those were the days when I really was interested in almost anything Gene Hackman did. And while he still ranks extremely high on my list of film stars, I go back now, and see how he really does play himself in almost every role. That tended to make early roles "seem" better than they really were, because a guy like Hackman was so earnest in playing them, he brought the character alive. That becomes much harder today later in your career when you are totally familiar with every little expression , gesture, and nuance in his repetoire.

That said, Ann Archer had gotten a nice boost as Mrs. Jack Ryan, and was a welcome addition. So, I like the film quite a bit when I first saw it. Much later, it was on t.v. and I viewed it again, and was much less enamored. As such, I think your assessment of it overall is quite correct.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Strange. For some reason, I thought you hadn't seen this one. I expected you to have all sorts of issues with it, what with being a lawyer and all. But if you don't remember it, no worries. It's one of those movies - I guess it's what people used to call a "programmer." In other words, a fun little B-movie.

When I described Timecop and Sudden Death as over the top, I guess I meant it in a good way. The former could be remade today (and was turned into a short-lived TV series if memory serves) while the latter is worth it just to see Powers Boothe chew the scenery. :-)

The Presidio just seemed like half a movie to me, as if every other scene were cut.

Anonymous said...

Jed -

Thanks. And I remember other video stores, but I came of age right when Blockbuster was the rental place. I also have fond memories of Suncoast in the mall. I miss stores like that.

No wonder the studios are down on Blu-Ray and don't release as much catalog titles as they used to - there aren't as many shops selling them as there used to be. (Suncoast, Virgin, FYE, etc.)

Agreed re: Hackman. He had a type and played it well, though sometimes he'd pop up in smaller non-tough guy roles (Woody Allen's Another Woman, for example.)

KRS said...

Jed, I do happen to like the guys and gals who play the same character in every movie throughout their career. It's like going into a McDonalds - no matter where you are on the planet, you already know what's on the menu, how it's going to taste and that can be comforting.

So when someone like, say, John Wayne comes on the screen - and is NOT playing Genghis Kahn - he's like an old friend, drawing you into the story so long as the director has the sense to use him in the role the actor has made.

Conversely, if Jeremy Irons comes on the screen as a scoutmaster, he'll send shivers up your spine before he utters a word. (OT - he voiced Scar in Lion King brilliantly, which kinda undercuts my previous arguments regarding voice acting).

So, I like these actors in their predestined roles as long as that role is critical to the story. However, it can be overdone. Whereas John Wayne had the natural charm to play the noble cowboy in every role from Wedge Donovan to Rooster Cogburn, Tom Cruise has overused the priviledge of playing Maverick whenever he isn't wearing plastic fangs.

So, yeah, I like Gene Hackman in the movies he's done - though I haven't liked every movie he's done.

Anonymous said...


I guess it only becomes a detriment when the actor becomes a parody. Gene Hackman never became a parody of himself.

As talented as, say, Christopher Walken is, you can bet whenever he shows up in a movie, he'll most likely be an eccentric weirdo and people will get a laugh out of it. I fear Nicolas Cage is down this path as well. (I'll defend Cage but there seems to be this weird... Internet subculture... "thing" about him. But that's just movie geeks - I doubt the general public notices or cares.)

Tennessee Jed said...

KRS and Scott - lest you misinterpret my initial statement, it was really meant as a compliment to Hackman. My point is that earlier on in a future icon's career, we are less familiar with his or her style. What that did, at least for me, was help mask a weakness in a character, or perhaps, better to say weakness in a script. We have talked about this before with icons like John Wayne, Anthony Hopkins, or Hackman. Hackman, like his friend and old roomie Dustin Hoffman, could be themselves and still portray a fairly wide range of characters. From the coach of Hickory High to "Little Bill" beating up the "duck of Death." My main point was that true professionals Hackman and Archer made a rather mundane thriller seem better than it actually was, and isn't that what great actors do? Of course it probably helped that this is one of my favorite genres.

Anonymous said...

Jed -

I don't believe I misinterpreted you, and I agree that a skilled actor can make an average movie good, though I'm not sure that a skilled actor can make an average movie great. Ultimately, it all goes back to the script and in the case of this movie, it's strictly by-the-numbers.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, This is one of those that I saw on a rainy Saturday afternoon and I probably fell asleep watching it. I really only remember tiny bits of it.

I do generally find everything Hyams has done to be good or excellent, but this one just doesn't ring very many bells.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Most of movies are like that. It occurred to me many years ago that the vast majority of movies simply vanish into the ether. It's only a small percentage that are really remembered.

Kit said...

Never seen it. Alas, I have yet to hear of Peter Hyam, either. Though he does sound good.

I have heard of Star Chamber. Never seen it though.

Kit said...


Anne Archer was a perfect Mrs. Jack Ryan.

Anonymous said...

Kit -

I mentioned Hyams' most popular movies in the review. In fact, Andrew has reviewed both Outland and Capricorn One. He's far from a household name and I'm pretty sure Andrew and I have talked about him more than most people have.

Agreed re: Mrs. Ryan.

PikeBishop said...

I'm a sucker for train movies.

Anonymous said...

Pike -

I'm a fan myself. And of course, you can do things in train movies that you can't do in plane movies.

PikeBishop said...

Andrew: Exactly. Among other things.

1. Trains have beds, baths and whole bedrooms
2. Trains have dining rooms, lounges and bars, not drink carts.
3. You can get on and off and reboard a train, or have external characters do so. Pretty much impossible on a plane.
4. There are separate cars and partitions for plotting, privacy and hiding things on trains.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy a lot of Hyams films . Narrow Margin I've actually like ever since seeing it in 1990. It's a by the numbers thriller , but i took it for what it was. Hackman is very entertaining & makes it even better. Seeing in 70mm (blow-up) with the cinematography was a fun experience.

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