Murder Rides the Rails!

The Narrow Margin: written by Earl Felton, Martin Goldsmith, and Jack Leonard; directed by Richard Fleischer; starring Charles McGraw (Detective Brown), Marie Windsor (Mrs. Neal), and Jacqueline White (Ann Sinclair) (1952): Short, snappy B-movie was remade into a somewhat superior Gene Hackman vehicle in the early 1990’s, with the definite article removed from the title.

Detective Brown has to get a mobster’s wife who’s turned state’s evidence to Los Angeles from Chicago. So they take a train. Killers are on the train. Killers may be at various stops along the way. It’s all fairly tense and succinct, with a meanness of attitude and violence that suggests the growing influence of Mickey Spillane on film noir in the United States. A more charismatic cast would have made a big difference — this is not a testament to great film acting — but the movie is still well worth watching. Recommended.

Shadow of a Doubt: adapted by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville from a story by Gordon McDonell; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Teresa Wright (Charlie), Joseph Cotten (Uncle Charlie), Macdonald Carey (Graham), Henry Travers (Joseph Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), and Hume CRonyn (Herbie Hawkins) (1943): Perhaps Hitchcock’s most nuanced and humane exploration of human evil, Shadow of a Doubt casts its shadow forward on similar explorations of small-town America that include Blue Velvet, Fargo, and many other seriocomic films and television shows.

Joseph Cotten, cast against type as a monster, does great work as Uncle Charlie, a serial killer who returns home to his older sister’s house just one step ahead of the law. Once there, his ‘twin’ — Teresa Wright as his niece Charlie (Charlene), named in honour of him — swiftly moves from hero worship to growing horror at what she gradually perceives her uncle to be. Wright is also excellent as the increasingly horrified Charlie who nonetheless must weigh what to do about her uncle as she fears what the monstrous allegations would do to her mother, who adores her baby brother.

There’s a tremendous breadth to Shadow of a Doubt. Comic scenes with a young Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers offer commentary on an audience’s love of thrills and murder. Hitchcock and his writers also examine the somewhat stultifying family dynamic of the younger Charlie’s household. As is common in Hitchcock films, the law is a step slow and a day late throughout the film. The final confrontation will be between the two Charlies and no one else. Highly recommended.

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