An enjoyable remake of the 1952 film, Narrow Margin is a well-made neo-noir that benefits from having Gene Hackman being his usual brilliant self in the lead role that makes good use of his formidable talent. He is L.A. District Attorney Robert Caulfield, a man who ends up escorting a woman named Hunnicut (Anne Archer) on a dangerous cross-country train ride to get her to stand as a witness against the powerful Leo Watts (Harris Yulin).
Directed by the dependable Peter Hyams, who also wrote the script adapting the earlier movie into this updated take, this is a film full of shifting surroundings and constant momentum, not just due to most of it taking place on a train. Caulfield only knows one or two people he can fully trust, while Hunnicut isn’t always entirely sure about why she should place her faith in him. Anyone around our two leads could be a killer, and Watts may not be onscreen for much of the runtime, but there’s a large shadow cast over everything as we see how seemingly infinite his reach and resources are.
Although this follows the template of the original film fairly closely, there are some tweaks that help to make it a slightly more enjoyable experience. The various identity reveals are well-placed, whether they are proving someone is bad or ultimately good, and there are a few decent action moments that allow Hackman to back up his promise of doing whatever it takes to get the woman in his care safely to a more secure environment.
Hackman is the reason this works as well as it does, and Hyams was surely thankful to bag him for the lead role. He may not be the typical choice for this kind of role, but he’s undeniably trustworthy, determined, and charismatic. I wish I could say the same for Archer, who feels sadly all-too-replaceable in her key role. Susan Hogan does much better though, playing a train passenger who takes more than a passing interest in Hackman’s character. Yulin does well with his minutes of screentime, there are small roles for both M. Emmet Walsh and J. T. Walsh, and James Sikking, Nigel Bennett, B. A. “Smitty” Smith, and J. A. Preston help to round out a supporting cast of surprisingly compelling characters.
Although it has a layer of polish that lessens the feeling of real danger and darkness, Narrow Margin still manages to ratchet up the tension on the way to a final act that proves to be enormously satisfying. If you like even some of the names I have listed here, and especially if you like Hackman, then this is a fun film to give your time to on an evening when you want something comfortingly assured.
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