Narrow Margin makes a strong argument for saving the Southwest Chief
State lawmakers are pondering a bipartisan proposal today that would help fund the track maintenance and upgrades that Amtrak says it needs to keep running its Southwest Chief route through southern Colorado. The railroad wants approximately $40 million a piece from Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico over the next decade to keep the venerable line on track, so to speak. But if supporters really want to see this deal closed in a hurry, here's a suggestion: send every legislator in those three states a copy of The Narrow Margin, a 1952 thriller that proves how exciting a trip on the Chief can be.
See also: Ten hit movies filmed in Colorado
Directed by Richard Fleischer, The Narrow Margin is the kind of taut little film noir that RKO used to turn out by the dozen -- shot in under two weeks, clocking in at less than 75 minutes, strong on action and character. It's also a terrific story, with surprising plot twists and stellar performances by B-movie stalwarts Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor, as a cop escorting a witness on the Super Chief (the former name of the Southwest Chief) from Chicago to Los Angeles, while pursued by mobsters. (The film was remade, for no good reason, with Gene Hackman and Anne Archer in 1990.)
No big budget here; just an economical but breakneck narrative, a mysterious fat man, frantic struggles in the cramped confines of a sleeper compartment (credited with inspiring a gaudier fight sequence aboard a train in From Russia With Love), and the requisite hardboiled dialogue. (Even before he meets Windsor, contemptuous cop McGraw predicts she'll be a dish, but a certain kind of dish: "Sixty-cent special. Cheap, flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy.")
Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor.
Although most of the action takes place on the Chief, little of it was actually shot on a real train. The only location work involved a couple of scenes at stations, including one purporting to be the La Junta train station. Yet the movie manages to convey, far better than many glossier films, some of the excitement and romance of train travel in its heyday: the elegant dining car, the helpful staff, the station amenities and communiques by telegram.
Send a copy of the DVD to the Colorado General Assembly, and it could give lawmakers a starting point in their deliberations over how much of a role the train still plays in the life of small towns scattered across the eastern plains and the Southwest, and what would be lost by letting so much transportation infrastructure go to waste.
Amtrak has proposed defraying some of the cost of operation by cutting expenses elsewhere. Colorado backers are trying to figure out how to expand the service to Walsenburg or Pueblo as well as Trinidad. Train travel may have been left in the dust by air service, but for many areas it remains the only alternative to auto travel -- and some transportation gurus believe that, like forgotten but well-done movies, it could be discovered and made vital again.
Flickr by Steve Wilson. Southwest Chief heading west to Trinidad.