Narrow Margin is a 1990 crime thriller film directed by Peter Hyams and released by TriStar Pictures, loosely based on the 1952 film noir The Narrow Margin. It tells the story of a Los Angeles deputy district attorney who attempts to keep a murder witness safe from hit men while traveling through the Canadian wilderness aboard a train. The film stars Gene Hackman and Anne Archer.
Carol Hunnicut (Anne Archer) goes out on a blind date set up by her friend, in a restaurant hotel in Los Angeles with Michael Tarlow (J. T. Walsh), a lawyer about whom she knows very little. When Tarlow receives a message during dinner to call a client, she accompanies him to his hotel suite while he makes the call. While she is in the bathroom, the client, gangster Leo Watts (Harris Yulin), arrives in person with one of his hit men, Jack Wootton (Nigel Bennett). Watts accuses Tarlow of stealing money from him. After a fearful Tarlow admits that he did, Watts tricks him with promise to spare his life, but lies and has Wootton shoot him to death. Carol witnesses Tarlow's admission that he stole the money and the murder itself from an adjacent room, but Watts and Wootton do not detect her. After they leave, she waits for almost an hour before fleeing the scene. Fearing for her life, Carol does not report the murder to the authorities.
Tarlow's murder receives wide media attention. Not long after the murder, Deputy District Attorney Robert Caulfield (Gene Hackman) triumphantly interrupts his bossDistrict Attorney Martin Larner (J. A. Preston) while Larner is meeting with new Deputy District Attorney James Dahlbeck (Kevin McNulty) about another case, much to Larner's displeasure. Caulfield introduces them to Detective Sergeant Dominick Benti (M. Emmet Walsh), whom he asks to provide Larner with breaking information on the Tarlow murder. With Caulfield and Dahlbeck looking on, Benti tells Larner that he has identified fingerprints discovered in the bathroom of Tarlow's suite as belonging to Hunnicut. His investigation of her has revealed that she has not been to work since the day of the murder and that her friend had reported Carol missing two days after the murder. Her reluctant friend has informed Benti that after she reported Carol missing, the frightened Carol had called her to tell her that she had witnessed Tarlow's murder, Watts at the scene of the murder, and was fleeing Los Angeles to hide out in a remote cabin in Canada. Caulfield confidently tells Larner that he and Benti will go to the cabin, surprise Carol, and convince her to return to Los Angeles to testify against Watts in a first degree murder case. When Larner says that he cannot approve the expense of Caulfield's planned trip, Caulfield accuses Larner of having used bureaucratic maneuvers to keep Caulfield from getting a witness to testify against Watts one year prior to doing it again now. He also accuses Larner of stalling on apprehending Watts until circumstances will allow Larner to gain the maximum amount of publicity in announcing Watts' arrest. Caulfield cockily tells an angry Larner that he and Benti are going to the cabin immediately, even without Larner's authorization, as they leave Larner's office.
Caulfield and Benti arrive by helicopter at the cabin in Canada where Carol is located. They ask her to return to Los Angeles and testify against Watts under police protection before Watts can find and kill her. But she says that Watts does not know who she is and cannot find her. So she refuses to return to Los Angeles or testify. While the three are talking, a second helicopter arrives and sprays the cabin with machine gun fire, killing Benti; when the helicopter that brought Caulfield and Benti to the cabin attempts to take off and escape, it is machine-gunned too, killing its pilot in a fiery crash. Caulfield and Carol escape in a sport utility vehicle and, after a wild chase through the woods with the helicopter in hot pursuit, arrive at the railroad station atLac des Arcs, Alberta. There, a Via Rail Canada train is about to depart on a 20-hour trip through the Canadian wilderness to Vancouver. The train's private compartments are sold out, but an elderly couple, thinking that Carol is pregnant and Caulfield is her husband, offer them their private compartment. Caulfield tells Carol that the hit men have seen him but probably do not know what she looks like, and tells her to board the train. Wootton and another of Watts' hit men, Nelson (James B. Sikking), arrive on foot after getting off the helicopter. Caulfield identifies them as Watts' hit men, and he, Wootton, and Nelson board the train.
A game of cat-and-mouse begins as the hit men search the train for Carol. Caulfield tries to protect her without giving away her identity to them. When the train stops at a small station that evening, Caulfield gets off and uses a pay phone to call Dahlbeck in Los Angeles, telling him what has happened. Accusing Larner of corruption and telling Watts where to find Carol, Caulfield asks Dahlbeck not to tell Larner anything. And, asks that he sends them help. Dahlbeck says he will arrange for authorities to meet the train at its next stop, Monashee. After the train resumes its journey, Caulfield moves Carol to another car, and goes to the dining car to keep Wootton and Nelson under surveillance. While there, he meets a woman named Kathryn Weller (Susan Hogan). The two strike up a conversation, for Kathryn appears to be attracted to him. After he leaves her in order to follow Wootton and Nelson after they leave the dining car, Caulfield encounters a smiling, overweight man who he must squeeze past in the passageway.
When the train arrives at Monashee's small, lonely station at midnight, Caulfield disembarks and talks to two well-dressed men who are waiting for it. They introduce themselves as Sergeant Nigro (Andrew Rhodes) and Detective Loughlin (Lon Katzman) of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Caulfield becomes suspicious of them, and excuses himself to the men's room. Loughlin follows Caulfield and attempts to assassinate him in the men's room, but Caulfield ambushes Loughlin, disarms him, and flees into the woods. Wootton and Nelson get off the train, and they and Nigro search for Caulfield in the woods, but Caulfield manages to evade them and get back on the train; he now knows that Dahlbeck is working for Watts and had arranged for Watts' men to meet the train. Wootton and Nelson also get back on board. The overweight man has watched the events from the train.
In the dining car, Wootton and Nelson approach Caulfield. Nelson offers him ten times his annual salary if he will point out "the woman" to them and not intervene while they kill her; he also shows him that he and Wootton have disabled the train's radio, and adds that in the morning far more violent men will meet the train in Vancouver, its next stop. Caulfield claims not to know what woman they are talking about, and adds that he is not interested in bribes; he likes prosecuting people like them too much and enjoys seeing them squirm and tug at their collars while a judge hands down a harsh sentence for them. Again the overweight man observes the conversation from a distance, and Caulfield suspects him of being another of Watts' men.
In the morning, Caulfield encounters a young boy named Nick (Codie Lucas Wilbee) and borrows a realistic-looking water pistol from him. In the dining car, he again meets Kathryn, who is asking if she can see him again. But when the elderly couple who had given Carol and Caulfield their compartment pass through, asking Caulfield how his wife is, it upsets her. Wootton and Nelson enter the car, and Caulfield, certain they will assume that Kathryn is Carol, hustles Kathryn out of the car to keep her from being killed. He encounters the overweight man, who turns out to be a railroad police officer named Keller (B. A. "Smitty" Smith) who had been observing Caulfield, Wootton, and Nelson because of their suspicious behavior. After Caulfield and Keller identify themselves to one another, Keller agrees to keep Kathryn with him in his compartment, where Wootton and Nelson will not look for her.
Caulfeld gets Carol and brings her to Keller's compartment. But upon their arrival they open its door to find Keller dead with a bullet hole in his forehead; Caulfield assumes that Wootton and Nelson have killed Keller and taken Kathryn. Wootton then appears in the passageway, and for the first time sees Carol with Caulfield. They flee, but are forced to stop when they see Nelson waiting in another car ahead of them. Caulfield has Carol climb out onto the roof of the car. When Wootton arrives, he ambushes him with the water pistol and disarms him, but a struggle ensues, at the end of which Caulfield throws Wootton from the train. Caulfield climbs onto the roof with Carol. Nelson also climbs onto the roof, and a fight between Caulfield and Nelson ends with Nelson also falling from the train. Believing they are safe, Kathryn appears on the train car's roof, pointing a gun at Caulfield and Carol. She is also one of Watts' assassins, who killed Keller. But before she can shoot them, she is killed when the train enters a tunnel, causing her to strike her head on the tunnel's entrance. After the train pulls over on a siding, Caulfield uses a farmhouse telephone to arrange for the Canadian authorities to meet the train in Vancouver. He also calls Larner, telling him that Dahlbeck is working for Watts and asks Larner to meet Carol and him at the border.
Carol returns to Los Angeles and provides damning testimony against Watts under questioning from Caulfield. Caulfield smiles at Watts in the courtroom, enjoying his obvious discomfort. When Watts nervously tugs at his shirt collar, Caulfield mocks him by tugging at his own collar, knowing that Watts will be convicted.