Made the same year as the classic noir film D.O.A., Rudolph Maté’s Union Station is probably lesser known because of its current unavailability on DVD, which is odd given it’s a major Paramount production starring a young William Holden, and features a sharp, tight script by Sydney Boehm (Violent Saturday, Woman Obsessed ), based on a novel by Thomas Walsh.
Like D.O.A., Maté shot much of Union Station on authentic locations, focusing on Los Angeles’ elegant railway station, as well as bits in Chicago to expand the scope of the chase montages that make up this clever cat-and-mouse tale of a station detective trying to find the kidnapped blind daughter of a wealthy family before the ransom is paid.
Holden’s station detective is straight out of a private eye detective novel, except he comes with an extensive retinue of assistants and unusually powerful authority, particularly with the local police
The story begins when a woman, Joyce Willecombe (Nancy Olson) suspects a gun toting stranger (Lyle Bettger) and his partner on a train to Los Angeles are up to no good. Although the train conductor dismisses her pleas for attention – quite a scene when viewed in today’s post 9/11 environment – he eventually agrees to forward her concerns to the Union Station agent, although it’s done more out of spite, hoping she’ll be ridiculed for being a nuisance.
Holden’s Lt. Detective Calhoun is very possessive of ‘his station,’ and when it becomes clear there’s a dastardly kidnapping underway to extort $100,000 from a family, he puts every resource into action, knowing the missing girl may have less than 10 hours to live.
Joyce remains by Calhoun’s side because she’s the only person who can identify the kidnappers, and through some clever conveniences, she remains helpful to the end of the ordeal, which has Calhoun following suspects through the innards of the station, as well as chasing another on an elevated train. There’s also the finale which takes place in an underground rail system, and a series of events which further reveal the lead kidnapper’s brutal persona.
Brutality is also part of the film’s civic legal force, as neither the police nor Calhoun have any qualms about beating up or threatening the life of a suspect ‘behind the rail house’ to get important life-saving info. It’s a fuzzy morality that’s native to pulp tales and noir characters, and differs from the stark good and evil realms of FBI thrillers.
Boehm’s script doesn’t introduce a romantic alliance between Calhoun and Joyce, but the sparing moments of dry humour lighten the film’s heavy drama, and open the door for a possible liaison after the end credit roll. More notable, though, is the professional respect between Calhoun and city Inspector Donnelly (scene-stealer Barry Fitzgerald), which is beautifully summarized in a quiet scene where Donnelly makes a set of hot toddies, and takes the glass with the bigger booze ratio.
Union Station is a tight suspense film that’s also notable, perhaps for lesser reasons, because the underground rail system seen in the finale is a rare glimpse at Chicago Tunnel Company Railroad, which ferried coal, mail, and various supplies to businesses before it was abandoned in 1959.
Nancy Olson also appeared with William Holden in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard that same year, whereas Lyle Bettger played another memorable villain in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Great Show on Earth (1952).
In addition to Union Station, Maté’s also directed Boehm’s scripts for Branded (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), Second Chance (1953), and Siege at Red River (1954).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan