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DVD Review: UNION STATION



Studio: Olive Films
Year: 1950
Cast: William Holden, Nancy Olson, Barry Fitzgerald
Director: Rudolph Mate
Release Date: July 27, 2010
Rating: Not Rated for
Run Time: 01h:21m:05s
Genre(s): noir

"I'm only interested in one thing, miss: armed criminals." - Bill Calhoun (William Holden)

UNION STATION

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Los Angeles noiry goodness at the train station downtown.

Movie Grade: A-

DVD Grade: B+

I readily admit that what first attracted me to this film was an uncannily coincidental bit of casting and timing: it was made in 1950, and the two leads, William Holden and Nancy Olson, played opposite one another that same year in one of my nominees for the greatest film of all time, Sunset Boulevard. This isn't in the same league as Billy Wilder's movie, of course, but it is 80 swell minutes of classic procedural noir. But here's the special bonus—and I don't mean this at all disparagingly: it's a movie about infrastructure!

Well, sort of. It's a cop drama set in and around the principal railroad depot for Los Angeles, and provides an extraordinary window into what travel was like back in the day. It's from a time when there was still romance to the notion of traveling—everybody dressed for the occasion, and the station restaurants were outfitted with sparkling white linens. (Think about that the next time you buy a $6.00 cup of lousy coffee at the airport, or when your Jet Blue flight attendant goes postal on you.) Traveling from one place to another wasn't taken for granted in the manner in which it is now, and we also get to see here different modes of transportation on display—most notably the funicular, an elevated train that makes one's commute look like a quick hop on the monorail. (It's featured prominently in the extraordinary documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, a brilliant look at Los Angeles architecture on film, and a feature that is basically unreleasable for home video.)

There actually is something of a plot on which all these sociological observations can be strung—it's not much of one, but it will do. Olson plays Joyce Willecombe, who works for a titan of industry; when she takes the train back to town from the boss's cottage, she notices that a couple of her fellow passengers are packing heat and seem to be up to no good. She alerts the authorities, and it's her worst-case scenario come to life: the bad guys have in fact kidnapped the boss's blind daughter, and intend to ransom her back and then kill her, with the big cash dropoff happening in Union Station.

Don't fear, friends, for William Holden is on the case. He plays Lieutenant William Calhoun, whose bailiwick is the station itself—it's not precisely clear to me if he's LAPD and stationed there, or if he's in the employ of the station itself, which would give a bit of a fascistic air to his forthright, let's-get-the-bad-guys demeanor. Barry Fitzgerald is along as Calhoun's comrade—he doesn't get much to do other than rub his chin and offer reassurance, but he's always a charming and avuncular screen presence.

One of the artful things about the film is how it makes virtues of necessity—it was clearly shot on a low budget, and a tight schedule. Which means we get a film of almost all master shots and no close-ups, and with almost no music—but it works great, because it takes such great advantage of locations (like the bowels of the station, or the end of the line, leading to a stockyard) and of ambient sound (the roars and whistles of train engines, of course, but also the whoosh of wind through underground tunnels, and the chatter of lots of people in a busy station in a hurry at rush hour). It's not really hardcore noir, I guess, but there's a streak in the film that seems to take pleasure in terrorizing women, even if justice prevails. This release is one of the first from Olive Films of classic titles from Paramount, and I'm hopeful that it's a harbinger of future titles, because this one sure is a dilly.

Posted by: Jon Danziger - August 11, 2010, 8:33 am - DVD Review
Keywords: noir, los angeles, william holden




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