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'Union Station' Reminds Us of a Pre-Automobile America

Rudolf Maté's Union Station tells a noir story from a time when passenger rail travel was central to American life.

Union Station

Director: Rudolph Maté
Cast: William Holden, Nancy Olsen, Barry Fitzgerald
Distributor: Olive Films
Studio: Paramount
US Release Date: 2014-12-23

There’s not much that’s subtle in Rudolf Maté’s 1950 film Union Station, but that’s a large part of its appeal. In this type of film, you expect a clear line to be drawn between those on the side of justice and those on the side of evil, and for the latter to triumph before the end credits roll. One can speculate on the reasons for this approach -- does it exemplify the self-assurance of post-War American audiences, or the filmmakers’ need to comply with the MPAA code? -- but the bottom line is that many “realistic” films of the day took a similar approach to portraying the world. That’s not how celluloid dramas tend to work today (outside of comic book franchises and the like), but it’s characteristic of many films of the time, and you can either decide to enjoy it for what it is, or find something else to watch.

Union Station is a police procedural, a sort of anti-caper film that shows the audience how to solve a crime rather than how to commit one. This genre is familiar today through countless television programs (Law and Order, the CSI franchise, etc.), but was pioneered in detective fiction, with examples such as Chester Gould’s comic strip Dick Tracy and Antony Boucher’s novel V as in Victim. Anthony Mann’s 1948 He Walked By Night is usually credited as the first film in this genre, and Union Station, originally released in 1950, followed close on its heels. The unfolding of plot is key to procedurals, with character development largely set aside in favor of stock types easily recognized by audience members, and Union Station is no exception to either rule.

The inciting event in Union Station wouldn’t be out of place in a 19th century melodrama. The blind daughter (Aline Roberts) of tycoon Henry Murchison (Herbert Hayes) is kidnapped and held for ransom. Murchison’s secretary, Joyce Willecombe (Nancy Olsen, whose character once again lives up to her nickname of “wholesome Olsen”) becomes involved when she spots two shady guys carrying guns, whom she reports to railroad detective William Calhoun (William Holden). Inspector Donnelly (Barry Fitzgerald) of the Chicago police also becomes involved, and together they set up an elaborate sting operation to reclaim the girl (or her body, which Donnelly thinks is the more likely outcome) and catch the ruthless kidnapper (Joe Beacom, played with cold-blood viciousness by Lyle Bettger) and his gang. These cops are not above stretching the law (one suspect is threatened with decapitation by train as a means of loosening his tongue) but the film’s clear distinction between good and evil is never seriously threatened.

If you’re old enough to remember a time when passenger trains played a central role in American life, you’ll particularly enjoy Union Station. If not, the film provides something of a history lesson in how Americans lived before the automobile took over. The story would be impossible if traveling by car were the norm, because the fact that train travel brought people of all kinds into close proximity is key to several plot points. The ability to check your bags at the station, a privilege that has largely disappeared since 9/11, is also crucial to the plot. The film’s climactic chase scene, which leads the police into the maze of tunnels below the station, emphasizes both the enormity of the rail enterprise, and the fact that there are unknown aspects underlying the many things we take for granted in our daily lives. If that’s not a film noir theme, I don’t know what is.

Union Station makes great use of location shooting, and it little matters that the locations used are not the same as the locations portrayed. Union Station in Los Angeles is featured as a stand-in for Union Station in Chicago (the Southwestern motifs in the architecture being a dead giveaway), while the elevated train footage was shot in New York City. None of this really matters, and the film does a great service to future generations by documenting not only Los Angeles in 1950 but also the now-demolished Third Avenue El in New York. If you can accept actors playing characters on screen, you should be able to accept one location standing in for another.

Director Rudolph Maté began his career as a cinematographer, receiving five Oscar nominations for best cinematography in the process. His fine eye for visual moments is present throughout Union Station. That’s the main reason this Blu-ray is warranted, since the film as been available on DVD for several years: It looks great in the higher-definition format, with a minimum of distracting artifacts to interrupt your immersion in the film. However, there are no extras on the disc, which is a real shame. A commentary track from a film historian would be welcome to describe the complex nature of the filming, potentially knitting together the various locations in a way that contemporary audiences would accept without question. Explanation would also be appreciated as to how this film fits into the genres of film noir in general and police procedural in particular.


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