Narrow Margin (1990, Dir. Peter Hyams)
When her blind date turns out to be a lawyer for the mob and is murdered by his boss, Carol Hunnicut (Anne Archer) goes into hiding. When hard-nosed Deputy District Attorney, Robert Caulfield (Gene Hackman) tracks her down he unwittingly leads a team of hired killers right to her and the duo’s only method of escape is via a cross-country overnight train to Vancouver. The killers are also aboard the train, however, and over the course of the next 24 hours Caulfield must do everything he can to keep Carol hidden and himself safe, so they can make it to Vancouver (and the authorities) alive.
Peter Hyams is one of my favorite underrated directors and this post will be the first of many looking at his work. Unusually for Hollywood, Hyams is also his own cinematographer which means that both the lighting and camerawork in his films have a very personal touch and I feel, because of this he often takes far more risks in the use of light and shadow than any other “genre director”.
This film, a remake of the 1950s noir, is a great example of this. From the crucial opening scene with Anne Archer’s character hiding in the darkened bedroom, her face illuminated by a tiny sliver of light through the door hinge, as her date is murdered in the next room; Hyams’ use of light and shade is nothing short of masterful. No director that I can think of these days, other than maybe Soderbergh or Fincher would dare to light the dialogue scene between Archer and Hackman in the train at night the way he does, with it’s intermittent plunges into complete black. His daring use of shadow here even reminds me of the groundbreaking cinematography of Gordon Willis or Conrad Hall, at times.
He’s aided by a string of great performances not only from the two leads but also the supporting cast including M.Emmet Walsh (who makes a great double-act with Hackman in their scenes together), Hyams regular, James B. Sikking, as the smooth-talking hitman and brief, but nonetheless superb, turns from a menacing Harris Yulin as mob boss Leo and the late, great JT Walsh as the unfortunate Michael.
Ultimately, though it’s two leads who pretty much carry the film.
Gene Hackman is one of my favourite actors of all time, his characters are never two-dimensional: His villains always have a human (and sometimes humorous) side and his heroes (like the character of Caulfield here) are never perfect and invariably so stubborn and single-minded that they are almost unlikeable. I’ve always admired Hackman’s ability to do this and it always gives an air of “truthfulness” to his roles because it reminds us that in reality, heroism often defined by the circumstances someone finds themselves in rather than their general personality.
The first time we see him he’s talking affectionately into the phone to a person we assume is either his wife or girlfriend but instead turns out to be M.Emmet Walsh’s character. His affection towards his colleague is the exact opposite to how little he seems to care about Anne Archer’s character, at least at the beginning of the film, who he can barely hide his contempt for. His heroics are anything but: the moment when he ambushes one of the assassins on the train and then stupidly ruins it by gloating about the fact that his gun is really only a water pistol is a classic example of his character’s fallibility.
In the hands of another, lesser actor the scene in the restaurant where Hackman’s character faces off against James B. Sikking’s cultured assassin for hire, would be played as a macho tete á tete like the coffee shop scene in heat. Here, Hackman’s character is trying to keep his cool despite the obvious danger he’s in, whilst Sikking tries to be as charming as possible. Again and again the film and Hackman’s portrayal of Caulfield subvert the typical genre clichés and go for a far more realistic approach to how people would behave in this sort of situation.
Such a performance would normally overshadow whoever was playing opposite, so it’s a testament to Anne Archer’s great skill as an actress that she is more than equal to Hackman in their scenes together. Why she’s more or less disappeared from our screens since that period (starting in the late 80s with Fatal Attraction to the mid 90s, shortly after this film was made, when she played opposite Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan’s wife in both Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger) when she seemed to be Hollywood’s Number choice when looking for an older actress who could both act and “be sexy” is a mystery to me. It’s clear from this role alone that she’s a superb actress and one you would expect would still be offered plenty of interesting roles. Certainly her performance here is one of her best. Her scene at the beginning of the film, with JT Walsh, is both charming and realistically awkward and her great speech on the train to Hackman, where she talks about having to leave her child behind when she went into hiding, quietly demolishing Hackman’s rather condescending opinion of her character, makes the viewer realize the true cost of her actions as well, again, as grounding the film in a reality most thrillers don’t get close to.
It’s worth noting too that there’s no romantic subplot here between the two leads. They are thrown together and care about each others survival, but it goes no further than that.
Great performances can only enhance a decent script, however, and here the whole cast seem to relish the chance to get their teeth into dialogue that’s well above that of the average genre thriller. Hackman’s character has two great speeches: One on the train talking about the policemen who died in the ambush at Archer’s hideaway and the other to James B. Sikking’s character in the restaurant car about why he will never make District Attorney. I also love his line to M.Emmet Walsh when they’re in the helicopter together: “If I wanted scenery, I’d buy a postcard!”
The final key ingredient is Bruce Broughton’s uncharacteristically minimal but utterly superb score; which is reminiscent of both Michael Small’s work on 70s conspiracy thrillers like Klute and The Parallax View and also John Carpenter’s The Fog. It’s use of simple repetitive piano melody combined with lots of space around the notes is a virtual masterclass in how to score a thriller.
It’s a slight shame that after such a great build-up, the last few minutes of the film feel rushed — almost as if the production run out of money towards the end. Whilst I hate critics that suggest how they would have done the film differently, it’s hard not to wonder whether a more ambiguous ending here would have been more satisfying dramatically; perhaps with the characters arriving in Vancouver and being met by both the good guys and the bad guys and the viewer left Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid-style to make up there own mind how the characters get away or not.
This is a small quibble however, for a thriller that more than holds it’s own and deserves a better reputation and far more attention than it ever received on either it’s initial release or subsequently on video or DVD.