Noirvember: Union Station

What makes you think anyone’s taking care of the girl?  I wouldn’t be lifting a finger — not one finger — if I could make myself believe she was still alive.  I don’t believe it.  Not for ten minutes after they grabbed her.  (Inspector Donnelly)

Beginning like a classic Paramount actioner, all stark raised capital letters and swirling horns on the soundtrack, Union Station develops more like a police thriller than a real noir film, and so it more or less remains; most of the dark flavor comes from a decidedly unromantic view of the cops that’s a lot more redolent of the maverick ’70s than a movie made in the sticky middle of the Hays Code.

Sweet and innocent Joyce Willecombe (played by Nancy Olson; you can tell she’s a peach because she’s chummy with her boss’ blind daughter) hops a train to what purports to be Chicago, and is public-minded enough to think it somewhat queer when a couple of armed goons get on board with nervous haste. She convinces the conductor to phone ahead to big Bill Holden, as head railroad dick William Calhoun, who is established right off the jump as a man whose ass is made of pure granite:  he berates a rookie for calling him “Willie” behind his back, glowers at the camera like it stepped out with his wife, and conducts a one-man crime sweep once he arrives at Union Station.  He busts up a card game, sniffs out some con artists, nails a petty thief on a parole violation, and on top of it all, plays with some poor totsy’s heart just to be an asshole.  Once he starts tailing the gun thugs, his main concern is making sure he can hammer them without getting sued.  Yes, he’s that kind of a cop.

After pausing to berate Joyce for a fun diversion, it transpires that a suitcase stowed by one of the hoods contains personal items belonging to her blind pal, her boss’ daughter and heir to his substantial fortune.  Since kidnapping is a federal rap, the F.B.I. as well as the local cops are brought in, the latter in the person of Barry Fitzgerald as Inspector Donnelly.  Still sporting his faith-and-begorrah brogue, he takes a break from his usual friendly-old-priest routine to play Donnelly as a nasty fuck who refers to criminals as “lice” and is happy to plot their demise in ways that won’t make his force look responsible, and toss inconvenient civilians who get in his way with trumped-up nuisance charges.  It’s this sort of characterization — the most cock-eyed view of cops this side of Alfred Hitchcock for its time and place — that gives Union Station most of its flavor and elevates it above a standard period procedural.

No one’s acting truly stands out here, but there are a few pretty effective scenes.  When Donnelly and Calhoun are attempting to convince the kidnapped girl’s father to play along with their attempt to ensnare the kidnappers, they clearly think he’s the one being a prick — after all, they have a job to do, and he’s getting in the way with his mushy concerns about her safety — but Donnelly just rolls up his sleeves and gets to it, promising no one’s going to push things (when that’s exactly what they’re going to do), leaving Calhoun to put on his sensitive-guy rap and act like he gives a shit.  Olson gets to have some fun as the only person in the movie who openly calls Holden out for being such a hard-ass, and while the lead roles are staffed by typical Hollywood faces, the railroad dicks and beat cops, though most don’t have any lines, tend to be enjoyable rock-headed goons whose faces are lined with character.

The action scenes are more interesting than most of the shoot-’em-ups of the day:  there’s a satisfying subway chase early on that isn’t exceptionally exciting, but requires you to pay attention to figure out where all the players are moving, and it leads to a foot chase through a convincing mockup of the Chicago stockyards.  (The cops refrain from shooting the goon they’re chasing because they want to beat information out of him, but in one of the more unexpected twists of a period thriller, he lets a bullet fly at his pursuers, panicking the herd and causing his own demise as he’s trampled to mush by few hundred head of freaked-out steak on the hoof.)

Union Station‘s pedigree is pretty slick, and came at a particularly high point for many of those involved:  it’s directed by the underrated Hungarian noir stalwart Rudolph Maté, who had cranked out D.O.A. earlier in the year; and Holden and Olsen were fresh off of Sunset Blvd.  Sydney Boehm’s screenplay was nominated for an Edgar award, and the novel it was based upon, Nightmare in Manhattan, won its author, Thomas Walsh, an Edgar that same year.  (The title should be a tip-off of the geographical shenanigans the adaptation from stage to screen let loose:  the book was set in New York’s Union Station, and the film shifts the action to Chicagos Union Station, but aside from a few bits of stock footage, it was filmed in Los Angeles’ Union Station.)  And the studio hand behind the cameras and lights was Daniel Fapp, who’d be the D.P. on movies as diverse as West Side StoryIce Station Zebra, and The Great Escape, but had just cut his teeth on noir by lensing The Big Clock.

The cinematography is uniformly good, with solid lighting effects and effective use of space, and the direction is well above average; Maté goes out of his way to make the mise-en-scene more authentic by populating the background with plenty of bustle and maintaining a lot of chatter, tannoy announcements, and the like.  And while I wouldn’t exactly call the set design grimy, it’s at least very workaday and unglamorous; Donnelly and Calhoun may do similar jobs and have similar snub-nosed personalities, but there’s a hint of bitterness in Calhoun, probably because his crummy ‘office’ is stuck in a noisy corner of a railroad station.  (I’m not sure if it was intended or just happenstance, but the cars in Union Station are a regular trade show of 1950-vintage slickmobiles:  a Plymouth Deluxe coupe, a ’48 Lincoln Continental, a Chrysler Saratoga, and a handful of others show up in the street scenes.)

Whatever the actual setting, Maté and Fapp take advantage of it, throwing some sweet-looking shots of the train station in the ransom handoff scenes (as well as a flat-out gorgeous chase through an underground tunnel near the end) and making effective use of trips outdoors.  The balance of light and darkness robs it of a real noir sensibility, as does the lack of any real sense of dread, the fairly standard police-prodedural set-up, and the happy ending.  By these lights, it’s a pretty minor noir, but if you read it instead as a twisted cop thriller, it’s one of the better ones of its time, elevated by its stylish filming and its jaundiced view of the brutality and cynical personalities of cops and fellow travelers.  The scene where Donnelly and Calhoun interrogate one of the low-level players in the kidnap scheme makes them look indistinguishable from the criminals in their casual threats of torture and death, and that alone makes Union Station stand out from the era’s usual depiction of cops as angelic guardians of order.  (Lyle Bettger, as boss hood Joe Beacom, answers his moll’s question about letting the kidnapped girl go by saying “They’ll find her when they fish her out of the river” in the same casual, unconcerned tone as Inspector Donnelly does when he orders his cops to throw a captured hood in front of a train:  “Make it look accidental.”)  It doesn’t quite fit in the stream of noir‘s classic period, but it’s a branch worth following.

One Response so far.

  1. Professor Coldheart
    11/10/2012 at 11:36 PM

    Nancy Olson and Bill Holden, reunited from Sunset Boulevard.

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