Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Air Is A Lot Better

You could hardly be blamed for not noticing, but a new Peter Hyams movie snuck into theaters a few weeks ago. Well, in New York and Los Angeles anyway. Every few years something turns up at the usually desolate Chinese 6 that gets me to go there and this was one of them--a Peter Hyams movie, with Michael Douglas no less, that quietly opened on a few screens probably due to some contractual obligation. A bit of a comedown for the guy who directed CAPRICORN ONE, OUTLAND, 2010 and THE PRESIDIO among others. The film in question is BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, a remake of the 1956 Fritz Lang film from RKO of the same name which I’m fairly certain I haven’t seen. It’s not very good at all so you don’t need to know much about it, but it did get me thinking about another film helmed by Hyams that was a remake of an RKO noir, namely the 1990 NARROW MARGIN. The original film is a classic of the genre and if you haven’t seen it you should probably do something about that immediately. The remake, never coming anywhere close, is serviceable at best but in all honesty I’ve always enjoyed watching it. This sort of mid-level thriller was still being made at the time and, even if watching it again after a number of years doesn’t reveal some kind of hidden treasure it’s still a pretty enjoyable time killer, the ideal sort of thing that should be running late at night for someone who can’t sleep. Not to mention that it’s a train movie and I love train movies. Doesn’t everyone?

A blind date that Los Angeles book editor Carol Hunnicut (Anne Archer) accepts goes horribly wrong when the man in question, lawyer Michael Tarlow (the much-missed J.T. Walsh), turns out to have been working for, as well as stealing from, mob boss Leo Watts (Harris Yulin) and ends up being shot for this right in front of Carol as she hides unobserved in the next room. She immediately flees but Assistant D.A. Robert Caulfield (Gene Hackman, given the same character name Elliott Gould had in CAPRICORN ONE) and police detective Dominick Benti (M. Emmet Walsh) are able to track her down to a remote house in the Canadian mountains (meaning that there’s actually a valid reason why this was filmed in Canada). But no sooner have they gotten there then it becomes shockingly clear that Caulfield has been followed, sending him and Hunnicut on the run, ending up on a train headed for Vancouver with the killers (including James Sikking—an older version of his hitman from POINT BLANK?) on the train in search of the woman with Caulfield trying to do everything he can to keep them from finding her and, with hundreds of miles of wilderness all around them, nowhere to run even if they could get off the train.

For anyone familiar with the original it’s clear that this NARROW MARGIN, written by the director, uses the basic protecting-a-witness-on-a-train premise as a jumping off point, essentially coming up with its own story but still knowingly tossing in a few points from that film, particularly the crucial character of “the fat man” as well as one twist that certainly at least seems in the spirit of that film. It’s not an ambitious piece of work—Hyams never seems to want it to be anything more than a modern day B-movie—but it is an enjoyable one that keeps the plot moving pretty early on, from a well done truck-and-helicopter chase through the woods to the use of the train in a way that keeps the story moving, knowing enough to concentrate on this suspense and not bother with a phony romance between the two leads.

Hyams also served as director of photography as he usually does and the look is like every other film by him—sleek, low-light levels—but at this point he was still willing to put at least some light in the frame and actually the pitch-black midnight rendezvous at a remote station actually winds up being one of the best looking and staged sections of the film. Some of the potboiler elements work so well that when it reaches for more depth the results are a little mixed. Hackman gets one very good scene in particular where he tells the bad guys why he chooses to stay in his job but Archer’s big emotional moments where she lays out her life and reasons for her actions (including saying that the killing she witnessed was not “like what you see on television, it was horrible” when really, that’s exactly what it looked like) feel a little too calculated for sympathy and just make us wish we were spending more time with Hackman as he moves around the train interacting with various people, narrowly avoiding getting into more trouble. Of course, the movie isn’t about the emotions she is going through so much as it is the cat and mouse chase throughout which culminates in the dynamic climax set on top of the train which is extremely well done and exciting—there’s certainly some work by stuntmen but enough of it is actually the actors up there which completely sells it. If you can’t get some fun out of watching Gene Hackman and James Sikking fight on top of a moving train, I don’t know what to tell you. Seeing this movie again wasn’t any kind of revelation—one of the twists is tipped with an aside that’s as subtle as a sledgehammer and I never caught it before now—but it does succeed in its potboiler way more than a few of Hyams’ more ambitious efforts (I’ve never been the biggest OUTLAND guy, for one thing) and with the exception of CAPRICORN ONE it’s probably my favorite of his films—of course, some might mention that when we’re talking about Peter Hyams that isn’t saying very much. It’s not the classic that the original is, but even if that were the worst thing I could say about it that wouldn’t be so bad. For the most part, it completely gets the job done and is a reminder of how much fun a thriller set on a train can be.

This is an ideal lead for Gene Hackman, who seems slightly energized by material as if he’s looking forward to seeing how this is all going to play out. He approaches his character as an essentially decent guy (“An honest man.”), one who we genuinely like following through the film and he earns our trust. Even if only looked at as a “Gene Hackman vehicle” it definitely succeeds. His basic nature here is interesting to contrast with Anne Archer and how much anguish she projects, to a degree which might not be necessary, but she admittedly doesn’t get too many notes to play since her character is supposed to be terrified for much of the time. Still, there’s a casualness that Hackman seems to share with most of the other actors in the movie that he never shares with Archer as a result of this, something which is prevented out of necessity from the plot, and as a result we wind up liking him more even considering what she’s going through. M. Emmet Walsh is lots of fun to have around when he’s on screen (which, unfortunately, isn’t for very long) and James Sikking, given really only one scene where he has any dialogue of note, is smoothly effective as the main bad guy. Susan Hogan, who I always remember from David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD, appears in the key role of a woman on the train who becomes a little too friendly with Caulfield. The score by Bruce Broughton is sparse, maybe a little too much so and there are a number of scenes throughout that feel like they could use some extra oomph. Considering that CAPRICORN ONE has one of the all-time great kick-ass scores by Jerry Goldsmith, it’s too bad that Hyams chose the opposite musical approach with a later film like this one.

No, it’s not the original but it is the kind of programmer starring, you know, adults, which used to be a more common sight out there and setting one on a train seems so pure, so naturally cinematic. Because of this, on the rare occasion these days when one of them does get released I’m that much more interested in seeing it to find out how such a pure genre piece can work in this day and age. That’s why it’s such a shame that something like the new version of BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT comes off as such a misfire and if you haven’t gotten to see it you’re not missing very much. But Hyams’ NARROW MARGIN remake is a completely enjoyable popcorn movie that, for the most part, does what it needs to do and doesn’t stick around too much to try to do much more. And it holds up pretty well because of that.


Unknown said...

Nice write-up on a film I haven't seen or thought of in years but your assessment is right on the money, IMO... as it your observations on Hyams. He seems to be one of those journeyman directors that plugs away anonymously. I have to say my fave film of his probably the slightly underrated monster movie THE RELIC which is basically a B-movie with an A-movie budget... or at least it looks like it does. Tom Sizemore does a pretty good job as a cynical cop and Penelope Ann Miller is rather lovely as the brainy scientist he teams up with.

Joe Valdez said...

Terrific write-up, as always, Peter.

I enjoyed Narrow Margin a lot as well. The atmosphere is killer. Not only is the movie entertaining, but it's slightly reminiscent of Klute at times and quite spooky.

I disagree with you on the casting. For once, I think a younger cast would have worked better. Hackman seems better suited to play the heavy, the James B. Sikking role, as opposed to a guy being chased all over a train like a mouse. The same goes for Anne Archer. I don't buy that a woman that classy would be on a blind date in the first place.

It's sad to see a good director go bad. Hyams began to shoot right into lukewarm junk after this picture, but 2010 and Running Scared have balls and are quite under-rated.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thanks very much. THE RELIC is one that I know I haven't thought about for years but what you say about it is probably absolutely right. Although by the time he made that one his films were starting to look pretty dark...


I'm glad we're at least partly in agreement even though I stand by Hackman here--I really do enjoy watching him in this role. As for Anne Archer, I'm not going to make the same argument. You may have a point there. But we're definitely on the page with the film's atmosphere and that it really is just entertaining. I haven't seen 2010 for a long time I wonder how it holds up now that we're almost in 2010.

Ryan Harvey said...

I must say that I like Broughton's score to this a lot, but the limited edition CD of it gives a version of the score different than was cut. It's no Capricorn One or Outland, but how many score are?

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


It comes off as pretty sparse in the film, even when it's present. Does what's on the CD give the impression that it could have been used in a more exciting way? You're right, scores like CAPRICORN ONE don't come along every day.

When I saw BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT I spent the movie wondering what was up with this goofy score which sounded like it came from a CBS Movie of the Week from the 70s. There were no credits until the end so I was surprised to find the composer was, of all people, David Shire! Go figure.

Marty McKee said...

What I like best about NARROW MARGIN--and most of Hyams' other films--is that they're completely forgettable. What I mean is, I saw this theatrically, and then I watch it again every five or six years, and it's like watching it for the first time. I enjoy it, but I can never remember anything about it.

Jim Wynorski swiped the big truck/helicopter chase for his EXTREME LIMITS, where the back of Anne Archer's head is quite noticeable.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Jim Wynorski always knew where to find the right stock footage to buy rights to.

Completely forgettable? I never really thought about it that way and I actually did sort of remember a lot of it. There is something kind of comfortable about the whole thing in a movie-movie way, maybe (for me) moreso than a few of his other films. Even so, I'll probably feel like popping the disc into the player again in about five or six years as well.