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NARROW MARGIN – Bruce Broughton

September 24, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Narrow Margin is a terrific B-movie action thriller, directed by Peter Hyams, and loosely based on a 1952 film of the same name, the screenplay for which was nominated for an Academy Award that year. The film stars Gene Hackman as Los Angeles deputy district attorney Robert Caulfield, who is tasked with bringing Carol Hunnicutt (Anne Archer) back to LA from Canada to testify against a mafia boss. Circumstances force Caulfield and Hunnicutt to travel by rail rather than flying, but once they board the train in Vancouver it quickly becomes apparent that the mob boss has sent two hitmen to kill Hunnicutt before she can take the stand; and so begins a deadly game of cat-and-mouse as Caulfield desperately tries to thwart the assassins and keep Hunnicutt alive, all within the limited confines of their locomotive as it hurtles through the Canadian Rockies. The film co-starred James B. Sikking, M. Emmett Walsh, and J. T. Walsh, and had an original score by the great Bruce Broughton.

This is the sort of movie that Hyams was famous for directing, and he also had the knack of working with some superb composers over the years – Jerry Goldsmith on Outland and Capricorn One, John Barry on Hanover Street, Michael Small on The Star Chamber, and so on. Narrow Margin was the second of three scores that Broughton wrote for Hyams, the others being The Presidio in 1988 and Stay Tuned in 1992, and it’s arguably one of the best straight action scores of the composer’s career. Broughton was still scoring two or three major studio releases per year at the beginning of the 1990s, and it was wonderful to hear him being asked to apply his considerable talent to a wide range of movies and genres. For Narrow Margin, Broughton brought his action movie A-game and scored the film with a series of brutal, blistering orchestral set pieces to accompany the film’s numerous chases and fistfights, and moments of tension and suspense. This is Broughton at his most gritty and aggressive, mostly eschewing melody for dynamic and forceful action writing in which the brass, strings, and percussion combine to perform a series of ferociously rhythmic cadences and ostinatos of exceptional quality.

There isn’t much of a main theme to speak of. A see-sawing piano motif runs through the majority of the score, acting as a sort of motivic anchor and giving the score something of an identity. There’s also a four-note motif for strings that appears most prominently in the “Main Title” and the “End Credits,” but it doesn’t really feature with any significant prominence elsewhere. The piano motif is interesting, though, because Broughton is careful to use it judiciously; in cues like “The Hit,” “The Boarding,” “Into the Station,” and “No Carol for Wooton,” for example, it is used almost exclusively as a suspense motif, snaking in and around the lithe and sinister cello writing, the high string sustains, and the low brasses, creating an atmosphere of tension so thick you can almost taste it. Later, in cues like “Sleeper,” the piano motif becomes the underbelly of the action, driving it forward with a relentless energy and irresistible motion, while the brass and strings do their thing over the top. Incidentally, the piano on that cue was performed by none other than the then-33-year-old composer Mark McKenzie, who was Broughton’s lead orchestrator at the time.

However, by far the most impressive elements of the score are the full-on action sequences which, as I mentioned earlier, are some of the most impressive of Broughton’s career, and certainly rival anything he wrote for Shadow Conspiracy or Lost in Space or any of his classic western scores. Cues like “The Cabin,” the thrilling “Chopper Chase,” “Stalled Success,” and the punchy and intense “Caulfield Runs” are enormously impressive action extravaganzas, and see Broughton really putting his orchestra through their paces in a series of loud and exciting settings. “Chopper Chase” is perhaps the pick of these cues – listen especially for the James Horner-esque pounding pianos, and the superb rhythmic interplay in the brass section.

“Freeze” is also worth mentioning for the terrifically dark and powerful piano writing, pounding away in the depths, as is the showstopping conclusive pair “Wooton, Then Nelson” and “Nelson, Then Katherine,” where Broughton leaves absolutely everything out on the line. The string writing in that latter cues is especially impressive, thrusting and raging along with genuine force. You can hear hints of all the best Broughton action writing in the instrumental phrasing and chord progressions too, including some from those scores I mentioned before. It’s so gratifying when you can clearly identify a composer’s distinct musical personality, even in scores like this which are dominated by action, and that’s yet another reason to recommend this score.

One thing worth mentioning, however, is that director Peter Hyams was also notorious for messing around with his film’s scores in post-production (which may explain why he never worked with the same composer on more than three films), and Narrow Margin is no exception. In the final cut of the film Hyams became obsessed with chopping up Broughton’s score so that all the most vivid musical statements were timed to match the movement of the film, so that it ended up sounding like mickey-mousing even though Broughton did not initially write it that way. Broughton even re-worked some of his cues to meet the director’s wishes, so in the final cut of the film much of the terrific through-composed action was excised in favor of stop-start stingers and short, bitty cues.

Fortunately the album – which was released as part of Intrada’s Special Collection series in 2004 – focuses on Broughton’s original ideas, with several of the chopped-up alternate cues included at the end of the score presentation as bonus tracks. Overall, Narrow Margin is a great action-thriller score for a really good, but sadly mostly forgotten, action-thriller movie. It does lack a strong and memorable main theme, but this is really the only criticism one can make of the thing overall. If you have ever been a fan of Bruce Broughton’s most intricate action writing, and want to hear that style ramped up to its biggest and most impressive heights, then this is absolutely worth checking out.

Buy the Narrow Margin soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Theme from Narrow Margin (2:32)
  • Main Title (2:33)
  • The Hit (2:07)
  • The Cabin (2:09)
  • Siege from Above (1:45)
  • Chopper Chase (4:17)
  • The Boarding (1:57)
  • New Passengers (1:58)
  • Into the Station (2:11)
  • No Carol for Wooton (3:34)
  • Sleeper (1:08)
  • Monashee Station (2:33)
  • Stalled Success (0:42)
  • Caulfield Runs (1:16)
  • Narrow Escapes (3:42)
  • Freeze! (1:14)
  • Fat Refuge (2:55)
  • Wooton, then Nelson (2:54)
  • Nelson, then Katherine (3:30)
  • It’s That Man (0:40)
  • End Credits (3:01)
  • Chopper Chase (Alternate) (2:42) – BONUS
  • Hide and Seek (Alternate) (0:40) – BONUS
  • Carol Sleeps (Alternate) (0:32) – BONUS
  • Mistaken Identities (Alternate) (0:44) – BONUS
  • Fighting Nelson (Alternate) (3:19) – BONUS
  • Collared (Alternate) (0:41) – BONUS
  • End Credits (Alternate) (3:02) – BONUS

Running Time: 61 minutes 29 seconds

Intrada SCV-14 (1990/2004)

Music composed and conducted by Bruce Broughton. Orchestrations by Mark McKenzie and Don Nemitz. Recorded and mixed by Armin Steiner. Edited by Curt Sobel. Album produced by Bruce Broughton and Douglass Fake.

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