[Warning: If you have not seen this movie be advised that some of my comments below of necessity involve revealing aspects of the story.]
In Narrow Margin Peter Hyams has created an adrenalin-pumping piece of film that will keep you sitting on a sharp edge of your seat. I suppose part of the point of the film is to sketch a brief for the duty of citizens to bear witness against those who corrupt society, but this ‘message’ seems, finally, to get blown away in the general rush of the action and the artistic mutations that take place here. The plot, briefly, is quite simple: a deputy district attorney must bring back a witness to a murder in order to convict a major crime figure.
And this simple plot is as ancient as it is tried and true for that very reason. The fundamental ‘map’ here is that of the hero’s katabatic journey, the katabasis, or descent into hell. In the classical pattern of this endlessly recycled story, old already when Odysseus entered the underworld in Book 11 of the Homeric Odyssey, the hero has usually one or more of three reasons for undertaking this daunting trip: to gain some special knowledge or wisdom, to rescue a woman, and to secure treasure. Hyams’ variant on the tale concentrates on the first two, though the third hovers in the background in the form of various bribes proffered to the hero.
The hero is Caulfield, the deputy D.A., played with his inimitable cool by Gene Hackman, unquestionably one of my three of four favorite actors currently working in American cinema. I find him totally convincing in this role. Anne Archer is excellent as Hunnicut, the woman, who inadvertently witnessed a crime czar’s presence at a murder, and can put him away for good. She’s fled, however, and Caulfield goes after her to bring her back to L.A. for the trial.
The katabatic landscape, the displaced underworld, is in this case the rough and dangerously beautiful terrain of the Canadian Rockies. Caulfield travels by helicopter to the remote cabin where his companion, a detective, has traced the woman. It is typical in such mythic tales that the underworld is remote and inaccessible, often separated from ‘this’ world by a body of water or mountains. The immense grandeur of snow-covered peaks among which the helicopter threads its precarious way to the woman’s cabin provides a splendid example of contemporary displacement for the traditional boundaries demarcating the ‘other’ world. The detective accompanying Caulfield is an Elpenor-figure (see here), the sacrificial victim who pays with his life for the hero’s journey to the beyond.
xxxxxThe obstacles and monsters encountered are as classical as they are typical. There are the sinners and there are the helpers. The former appear in four guises: the two hitmen who came in the second helicopter and then followed Caulfield and Hunnicut to the train, the two ‘mounties’ who show up at one of the stops the train makes, a backup hitter, and the traitor in the D.A.’s office. These are the more dangerous either for the semblance of civilized manners that they display or for their anonymity. The helpers involve and old couple, a young child, and a fatman. This constellation of helpful ancillary characters is part of the typology of the katabasis, being modern elaborations of the youthful Hermes with his moly, the aged Tiresias with his advice, and the hero’s companions; similarly, the baddies are the Cerberuses and the clinging, inhibiting forces of the lower world that make the return to the upper so problematical.
Most interesting of all to me is the train itself, first seen in a distant shot snaking like a great silver dragon through the wild and mountainous terrain of Western Canada (fortuitous or not, the underworld is usually located towards the West). It becomes an almost living emblem of the journey. The time frame is, as in Homer, cyclical, that of nature’s rhythms: day, evening, night, dawn, day. Most of the action takes place on the train, at night, and in the dark. (Note the motif of what I think of as half-moon facial lighting, starting with that of the crime boss, Leo Watts, at the door to his lawyer’s room: one side in utter darkness, the other brightly reflective). The train itself traverses a spectacular katabatic world of steep mountain sides, narrow defiles, still lakes, rivers, and dark tunnels.
The train photography merits mention for its own sake. It is both gorgeous and thrilling. The stunts are almost unbelievable — I found my hands gripping the sofa as I tried to hang on to the side of the train! When some of these passages call to mind the Hitchcockian “The Silver Streak” (1976) or look forward to the subway sequence in “Speed” (1994), I don’t think of the former as plagiarism, but as a respectful obeisance to the continuity of established cinematic traditions.
Did Peter Hyams, who wrote, filmed and directed “Narrow Margin”, have a conscious strategy of deploying the ancient map of heroic katabases? I don’t know — and don’t much care. The point is that the map is undeniable. The hero does bring the woman back to the real world, gains the ‘knowledge’ that she has an he needs in order to convict Watts, and secures his own version of treasure, measured not in dollars or gold, but the satisfaction of seeing a bad guy put away. And he overcomes all foes and all obstacles both through physical daring and through a good deal of Odyssean cunning and resourcefulness.
Even if the powerful underpinning of classical myth escapes you utterly, the movie is still a terrific, at times, heart-stopping, thriller; keep in mind what I have said, and you’ll perhaps enjoy even more yet another update of the hero’s endless questing into the underworld. Just as the righteous punishment of evil gives Caulfield great pleasure, vicariously it does me too.
Do see this film!