(director: Richard Fleischer; screenwriters: Earl Felton/from the unpublished story by Jack Leonard & Martin G. Goldsmith; cinematographer: George E. Diskant; editor: Robert Swink; cast: Charles McGraw (Walter Brown), Marie Windsor (Mrs. Frankie Neall), Jacqueline White (Ann Sinclair), Gordon Geberl (Tommy Sinclair), Queenie Leonard (Mrs. Troll, Nanny), David Clarke (Kemp, Hood), Peter Virgo (Densel, Hood), Don Beddoe (Gus Forbes), Don Haggerty (Detective Wilson), Paul Maxey (Sam Jennings, The Fat Man), Harry Harvey (Train Conductor); Runtime: 70; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Stanley Crea Rubin; RKO; 1952)

“This sleeper may very well be the best B-film ever made.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A breathtakingly suspenseful low-budget crime thriller that is flawlessly directed by Richard Fleischer (“Fantastic Voyage”/”The Boston Strangler”/”Armored Car Robbery”/”20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)”). Richard is the son of Max Fleischer, the cartoonist creator of Popeye and Betty Boop. This sleeper may very well be the best B-film ever made (if not the best, it certainly is one of the best); it’s shot in an unassuming and classical style. Cinematographer George E. Diskant does an overall fine job coming up with great shots in the claustrophobia of the train; and, in particular, with a climactic shootout between the beleaguered honest cop and the assassin set in the corridor and sleeping car; the tense action is heightened by making the reflections off the train windows an important part of the sequence. But the film’s greatest assets are the finely tuned performances of Charles McGraw as the tough-minded cop and Marie Windsor as the siren, and the magnificently achieved train ride where every passenger and stop signals a potential danger point. Writer Earl Felton based it on the unpublished story by Jack Leonard & Martin G. Goldsmith. The screenplay received an Oscar nomination.

Veteran Los Angeles detectives Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) are on assignment in Chicago to deliver by train the widow of mobster Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor) to a Los Angeles Grand Jury, where she’s scheduled to testify against her former husband and provide a “payoff” list. Mrs. Neall is called by Sergeant Brown “a 60-cent special … poison under the gravy!” As the escorts leave Mrs. Neall’s apartment, Forbes is immediately gunned down. Left alone to guard a sleazy woman he only has contempt for, the hard-nosed detective nevertheless tries his best to protect her from a pack of assassins that followed on the train. Brown’s only advantage is that they don’t know what she looks like, only that he is transporting her.

After unsuccessfully trying to bribe Brown, the assassins intensify their search for the witness. When Sinclair (Jacqueline White), a woman traveling with a young rambunctious son and nanny, is befriended by Brown, the thugs mistake her for Mrs. Neall. This leaves the refined lady as the target, and Brown feels rotten that he accidentally placed her in such danger.

The fast-paced pulpish taut story is filled with tense incidents and a well-executed twist. It was remade in 1990 with Gene Hackman starring, that doesn’t come close to equaling the original despite Hackman’s winning performance.

Charles McGraw, Jacqueline White, and Marie Windsor in The Narrow Margin (1952)