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Although certain Hollywood factions resented the tarnished image of Tinsel Town presented in Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., Paramount executives were impressed by that film's pairing of William Holden and Nancy Olson, both of whom were nominated for Oscars. The stars were immediately reunited in the tough-minded kidnapping noir Union Station. Graced with a smart script by Sydney Boehm and excellent direction from ex-cameraman Rudolph Maté, Union Station generates more than its share of suspense.
On a train bound for Union Station, secretary Joyce Willecombe (Nancy Olson) notices two armed men acting suspiciously. When she reports the behavior to Union Station police Lieutenant William Calhoun (William Holden), they discover that the men have just kidnapped Joyce's employer's blind daughter Lorna Murchison (Allene Roberts). The wealthy Murchison (Herbert Heyes) implores the police not to interfere with his ransom arrangements, but Calhoun and Inspector Donnelly (Barry Fitzgerald) keep a sharp eye on the Union Station locker used by the kidnappers. Joyce accuses Calhoun of placing police interests ahead of Lorna's rescue. Deranged criminal mastermind Joe Beacom (Lyle Bettger) abuses both his sightless captive and his own girlfriend Marge (Jan Sterling). One of the kidnappers is killed in a wild police chase in the stockyards. A second cooperates after the police threaten him with death, but nothing is gained and two more killings occur. When Beacom instructs Murchison to drop off $100,000 in cash in Union Station, the entire force is ready for him. But Beacom once worked at the station and is familiar with the miles of forgotten tunnels that connect it with other parts of the city ... and has a unique getaway plan.
For all normal purposes Union Station is a generic cops versus kidnappers suspense thriller. The noir taint shows through in certain attitudes and behavior. After William Calhoun mentions the railroad's desire not to be sued for false arrest, Joyce Willecombe worries that the authorities are only concerned with their public image. Even the colorful Irish Inspector Donnelly is pessimistic about the helpless Lorna's chances for survival. Union Station is most commonly singled out for a scene in which Calhoun and Donnelly strong-arm the captured kidnapper, telling him they're going to throw him under a train and make it look like an accident. Although this situation illustrates an extreme case, before modern criminal rights legislation American police had much more latitude in their treatment of suspects. The issue has reappeared in today's fear-driven Homeland Security environment, in arguments that urge the abandonment of hard-won civil rights.
Lt. Calhoun already runs his train station like a police state. Calhoun personally nabs thieves and con men; when trouble brews he can blanket the station with stern-faced plainclothes detectives. Director Maté stages several scenes with large crowds of extras in Los Angeles' Union Station, an impressive achievement considering that the production could not interfere with the train terminal's normal operation. Although scenes filmed on an elevated train and inside an enormous cattle stockyard suggest New York or Chicago, Union Station doesn't indicate a specific city. The use of an elaborate small-gauge underground train system provides an exciting, unique setting for the tense conclusion. When the sightless, panicked Lorna comes close to touching the train system's high-voltage power rails, the film's sense of jeopardy doubles.
Working against the noir ambience is Union Station's desire to please general audiences. Nancy Olson and William Holden develop an amusing relationship despite the grave circumstances. Olsen's Joyce Willecombe gets laughs by accidentally stumbling upon Lt. Calhoun's hated nickname, "Tough Willie". Barry Fitzgerald's Irish brogue isn't used for easy sentiment until the fade-out, when the filmmakers exploit the actor's impish smile to give audiences a "feel good" lift. Between Union Station's convincing action scenes, we're always aware that the studio is hoping to strike sparks with Holden and Olson as co-stars.
Frequent noir Bad Girl Jan Sterling is again stuck playing a gun moll and given very little screen time. She does little more than tie up the kidnap victim and plead with her boyfriend to let the girl live. The talented Ms. Sterling would make an indelible noir mark one year later in Billy Wilder's caustic Ace in the Hole.
The film's bit parts contain some special surprises. Familiar faces Douglas Spencer, Queenie Smith, Byron Foulger, Dick Elliott, and Robert Cornthwaite pop up, some only for a few seconds. Seen even more briefly is actress Kasey Rogers, a.k.a. Laura Elliott, a talented contract player with some of the worst luck of the 1950s. Paramount loaned Rogers out to Warner Bros., where she distinguished herself as the unforgettable murder victim Miriam in Alfred Hitchcock's classic Strangers on a Train.. But because Paramount didn't want to spend money on publicity for an actress in a picture not its own, and because Warners didn't want to publicize a Paramount actress, Ms. Rogers' good work earned her nothing, career-wise. In Union Station Kasey Rogers can be seen as a clerk in one of the very first shots on the station floor.
Olive Films' DVD of Union Station is a fine encoding of a B&W picture element in almost perfect condition. The transfer flatters Daniel L. Fapp's moody camerawork as well as Paramount's process photography specialists, who as usual do excellent work creating a number of near-flawless rear-projected scenes. No extras are included.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Union Station rates:
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