Thursday, June 4, 2009

Union Station (Paramount, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie we finally ended up watching last night was Union Station, a 1950 semi-thriller that had a lot of potential that didn’t get realized. It was made at Paramount, produced by Jules Schermer (who later produced Pickup on South Street for director Sam Fuller at 20th Century-Fox) and directed by Rudolph Maté from a script by Sidney Boehm based on a story by Thomas Walsh. It was William Holden’s very next movie after Sunset Boulevard and reunited him with the second female lead from that film, Nancy Olson, this time playing Joyce Willecombe, a woman who works as the private secretary to industrialist Henry Murchison (Herbert Heyes) and is traveling on a train from his home in Westport to New York City when she spots a man with a gun and reports it to the train’s conductor (Harry Hayden), who couldn’t care less but eventually agrees to call the security department at Union Station, where the train is scheduled to arrive.

The head of Union Station security, Lieutenant William Calhoun (William Holden), takes the case personally and works with New York Police Department Inspector Donnelly (Barry Fitzgerald, basically recycling his role from The Naked City). It turns out that the man with the gun is Joe Beacon (Lyle Bettger) and he’s kidnapped Murchison’s blind daughter Lorna (Allene Roberts) and is holding her somewhere in the station, demanding that $100,000 in ransom money be placed in his own suitcase (which he knows the police have already searched after using a pass key to open the locker where he stashed it) and delivered to him by a Western Union messenger. The movie gets quite a few things right and quite a few others wrong; the script doesn’t offer much room for the kinds of visual atmospherics Maté was good at (and indulged in to the max in his best film as a director, the 1949 D.O.A.), the sparing use of music (by Irvin Talbot) is welcome given how many otherwise great movies from classic Hollywood (from the 1941 Maltese Falcon to Edgar Ulmer’s Bluebeard) were weakened by overwrought and overused scores, but at times it’s a little too sparing and scenes that cry out for musical heightening don’t get it; and though it’s nominally a film noir there isn’t much of the sense of moral ambiguity that (along with the chiaroscuro visual style) distinguishes noir from other sorts of movies about urban crime.

The good guys are all good — Holden’s police officer, with his willingness to beat up suspects and heedlessness towards due process and constitutional rights, seems straight out of one of the Dirty Harry movies (indeed, if Union Station had been remade in the 1970’s, Clint Eastwood would have been the logical choice as the star); and Lyle Bettger’s performance as the villain is suitably twitchy but carefully avoids giving us anything to sympathize with, any reason to regard the person himself with anything other than our hatred for what he’s doing. The lead actors go through the motions and deliver solidly professional but not particularly moving performances — this may have reunited Holden and Olson from Sunset Boulevard but it didn’t give them anything like the complex emotions they were required to play in the earlier film — and it’s up to the supporting cast to take the acting honors. Allene Roberts is utterly convincing as the blind girl (indeed, she looks remarkably like a blind person I know: Jen Restle from the Bisexual Forum), and Jan Sterling gets only two brief scenes as Bettger’s girlfriend (who’s obliged to hold his kidnap victim in their apartment before he takes her away and returns her to Union Station) but nonetheless makes the most of them; torn between loyalty to her lover and revulsion that he’s taken up such a cowardly crime as kidnapping, she gets to play the kind of powerful moral ambiguity lacking in writer Boehm’s conception of the leads. (She was clearly warming up for her remarkable performance the next year in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, a film which should have made her a major star but didn’t.)

By far the best part of Union Station is the ending, in which Bettger has hidden his kidnap victim in a tunnel under the station accessible only through its power room (apparently, at least according to this movie, Union Station was off the grid and generated its own electricity) and Holden as the super-cop tracks them there and there’s a final shoot-out between them in which Maté at last gets to use the shadowy, chiaroscuro visual style of which he was a master — and there’s a fascinating moment in which Holden orders all the lights in the tunnel turned off, though more could have been made of the fact that by doing so he was putting Bettger’s blind victim on an equal, or even superior, footing, since the two men now had to function in the same lightless environment she was used to, and eventually Bettger’s suitcase bursts open as he tries to flee and the money scatters on the floor of the tunnel (anticipating the ending of Kubrick’s The Killing by seven years) before Holden finally shoots him down as he’s attempting to kill the girl. (Since she couldn’t see the mortal danger she was in, one wonders what the internal-affairs investigation of the shooting is going to be like and whether he’ll be able to establish that he shot the villain down legitimately — though given the cavalier acceptance earlier in the film of what would now be considered police brutality, that was probably not an issue either the filmmakers or the 1950 audience were concerned about.) Union Station was a good movie that could have been considerably better — with faster, more intense editing, a bit more music and a more complex script — but it’s at least reliable entertainment from the ending days of the studio system.