Union Station (1950)

Union Station – Tough Cops, Dumb Hoods

Looking at Rudolph Mate’s Union Station–starring William Holden, Nancy Olson and Barry Fitzgerald–is a useful counterpoint to the two movies recently reviewed here, The Naked City and The Tattooed Stranger. That earlier pair of noir films show the influence that Italian neorealism had on their directors–both were not only set in New York City, but mainly shot there as well. They have a gritty authenticity about them.

Union Station on the other hand is a classic studio movie–set supposedly in Chicago’s train station, it was actually filmed in its entirety in Los Angeles, with LA’s Union Station standing in for its counterpart of the same name in the Windy City. A scene set in Chicago’s world famous Union Stockyards is actually shot in the much less known stockyards in Los Angeles.

In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with this–not all movies, especially film noir, had the budgets to be shot on location. One problem is that it’s never quite apparent why the film has to be set in Chicago rather than in Los Angeles (a feature unique to Chicago does have an important, though not irreplaceable, part in the film). Certainly, setting the movie in LA itself would have allowed Mate and his cinematographer to focus more on the architectural beauty of the Los Angeles station, instead of having to hide it behind fake latticework to evoke its Chicago sister station; of course, aesthetics probably wasn’t foremost  on the producer’s mind in making this film.

The choice as to location, though, is especially unfortunate in light of the fact that both Holden and Olson were coming off their star performances in Sunset Boulevard, one of the truly great film noir, and one that brings a taste of classic Hollywood home to the viewer. This is not to say that the movie isn’t good–just the opposite, it’s a first rate, highly entertaining film.

The movie opens with Joyce Wittecombe (Olson) taking the train home to Chicago from her employer’s summer home; while steaming through the countryside, she sees a car racing the train, stopping at a rural station just as the train arrives. Two men jump out of the car, and board the train separately, sitting apart from one another on the same Pullman coach; Joyce’s suspicions are further raised when she notices one of them carrying a gun.

Back in Chicago, the head of station security, Detective Lieutenant Calhoun (Holden), is sent to interview Joyce when her train arrives in the city. After following the men and retrieving a valise left by them in a station locker, Calhoun realizes that Lorna Murchison–the blind daughter of Wittecombe’s employer has been kidnapped. Sure enough, a ransom demand is soon sent to the father, and this brings Chicago Police Department Detective Donnelly (Fitzgerald) onto the case as well. On a side note, it’s never clear why the FBI isn’t brought in on a case that not only falls under its jurisdiction (kidnapping) and that involves a substantial ransom demand ($100,000).

The kidnapper was clever in one regard–he decided to use the station as the hub for his contact with Murcheson, as well as the place where the money drop will take place. In such a large area, with tens of thousands of people passing through every day, the kidnapper figures, no one will be able to trace his steps. Unfortunately, he was very stupid in another regard (aside from committing the crime in the first place)–he has surrounded himself with a bunch of third string, small time hoods; they seem like they’d  barely be able to run a three card monty scam, let alone a kidnapping.

The other thing that the crooks didn’t count on was the skill and tenacity of both the station and city police (Bill Holden was a star–they weren’t about to make his character an idiot). The cops blanket the station as unobtrusively as possible; the half-witted crew hired by the kidnapper are rolled up one by one. The first is pursued on the El trains to the stockyard, where during a shootout, he manages to scare some cattle into stampeding and is crushed in the onslaught–it’s one of the most unique ways to die in a film noir that this reviewer has ever seen.

The second crook is picked up by the cops in the station (thanks to some independent detective work by Joyce), and the cops work him over for information. This scene, and another later with Detective Donnelly confronting a boarding house landlord, looks like it belongs in a modern-day noir, rather than one made in 1950s. After using what the Bush administration might call “enhanced interrogation methods” on the crook, Calhoun and his men take him to the train shed, and hang him over the rail in the path of an oncoming express train. The small time crook sings, naming Joe Beacon (Lyle Bettger) as the kidnapper. These cops aren’t the clean-cut lawmen that you see in The Naked City or even The Tattooed Stranger. They’re more than a little willing to do what it takes to get the info they need, and are a little closer to the characters you’d see in L.A. Confidential.

Soon, Calhoun and Donnelly, with Joyce almost always in tow, are after Beacon and his girlfriend as they move the kidnapped girl around the city. The final drop is scheduled for the train station, and from there it’s a race to see whether Calhoun and company can both find the kidnapper and save the life of Lorna Murcheson.

All and all, Union Station is an exciting, well paced noir with above average performances from the leads, Holden and Olson, as well as members of the supporting cast, including Fitzgerald and Allene Roberts as the kidnapped girl. It’s also interesting, since the bulk of the movie, at least two thirds and nearly all of the important scenes, occur in the same place–the train station, or its immediate environs; you could almost picture it as a stage drama. At the same time, the hustle and bustle of the station gives the movie a sense of constant movement and energy that make it a highly entertaining film.

Note

The underground tunnels that play an important role in the film actually existed in Chicago–they were a subterranean freight railway system operated by the Chicago Tunnel Company. Originally built to house telephone and telegraph wires, a narrow-gauge railway was installed to bring coal and other supplies to buildings around the city. In 1992, construction workers driving a bridge piling in the Chicago River accidently breached the tunnel network, causing millions of gallons of water to inundate the basements of buildings throughout the Loop; the event became known as the Chicago Flood.

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Scene of the Crime (1949)

Scene of the Crime – Why You Should Always Stick to Your Strengths

While Scene of The Crime is a stunningly average, if acceptably entertaining film noir, it is notable for being one of the few films of the genre produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and for being one of the only film noir to star Van Johnson, both known more for their war films, musicals, and romantic comedies. The rough equivalent today would probably be Tom Hanks starring in a dark, moody thriller (maybe this is why the film version of The DaVinci Code landed at the box office with such a resounding thud). At the end of the day, what SotC proves is that MGM and Johnson probably should have stuck with what they knew best, and left noir to the likes of Warner Brothers, RKO, and the poverty row studios.

The movie opens on two young lovers, hiding themselves in the shadows of a darkened street, catching one last embrace before they head home for the night. Their bliss is interrupted, however, as a confrontation between two men also on the street ends with one dead and the other hightailing it out of the area in a car driven by an accomplice. It turns out that the dead man was a police detective named Monagan, and no one–neither his captain or his ex-partner (who bounced him from the homicide beat because Monagan was showing his age and slowing down) knew what he was doing wondering down that dark street.

The only clues that his ex-partner (a detective named Conovan, played by Johnson), assigned to investigate the murder, has to go on are the recollections of that young couple–they didn’t get a good look at the perp, but they remembered that he had a large splotch on his face, and a severely twisted hand; also, the getaway car driver called the shooter “a crazy lobo”. The street also happens to be the location of an illegal gambling parlor; we find out that there have been a string of robberies of bookie joints, clip shops, and similar illegal enterprises. Needless to say, the local crime syndicate is unhappy.

So far, so fine. Sounds like a pretty standard noir setup. Unfortunately, from here on out, serious flaws appear inScene of the Crime which ultimately make it a mediocre film noir at best. First, MGM can’t seem to leave melodrama behind–the top cops think that Monagan was dirty and was pulling double duty guarding the gambling parlor; we get to see Monagan’s teenage son make an impassioned plea to Conovan to clear his father’s name. Further, we have to see Conovan’s stressed home life, where his poor wife Gloria (Arlene Dahl) continually has her dinners, movies and sleep interrupted by emergency calls to her husband. Also, she’s deathly afraid that he’ll leave one night and end up as a stiff in the morgue.

As if this bit of family drama wasn’t enough, it soon becomes apparent that the writers at MGM needed to watch a few of their competitors’ films noir in order to figure out the basic conventions of the genre. For instance, we see the local crime syndicate pick up one of the guys that they suspect has robbed them; followed by the cops, they take him to an abandoned warehouse where a bookie IDs the guy as one of the stickup men. Actually, to back up the step, before “lineup” the mobsters invite the cops in to observe. Then, once the syndicate has the man who ripped them off, they let him go without so much as a stern warning.

The absurdities and pointless melodrama pile up, one upon another, as the film proceeds. The “twist” ending sounds like it was cooked up by a five year old who couldn’t think of any other way to end his story.

Scene of the Crime should be of interest only to those trying to acquire a complete knowledge of the limited number of films noir produced by MGM. Instead, seek out the best film noir produced by that studio, The Asphalt Jungle.

Stakeout on Dope Street (1958)

The scene: a back alley somewhere in LA late one night. Two narcotics detectives have just picked up a suspect carrying a leather valise containing run-of-the-mill ladies toiletries: eau de parfum, lipstick, makeup, facial powder. Except that last can doesn’t have facial powder in it; instead, it holds two pounds of pure, uncut heroin–junk, smack, H.

Before backup can arrive, though, the drug mule’s associates ambush the threesome, killing one officer and critically wounding the other. Handcuffed to a fallen officer, the perp tosses his valise to his confederates; in the dark, trash-strewn alley, however, they can’t find it. As a backup prowl car comes screeching down the alley, the thugs put a couple of slugs in the drug mule, figuring no doubt that dead men tell no tales.

Up until now, pretty typical of a 1950s film noir; the next morning, typical noir meets typical 1950s wholesomeness as the valise is found by  Julian “Ves” Vesupucci as he is out on a delivery for his father’s grocery. Bringing the bag to the grocery’s back storeroom–where Ves and his friends Jim and Nick hang out–the trio quickly jimmy the bag’s lock, hoping to find a fortune in jewels inside. Their disappointment in finding the bag filled with beauty supplies is palpable; they figure they can get at least four or five bucks for the bag from the local pawnshop, and Jim decides to give the perfume and some of the makeup to his girlfriend, Kathy, who works the counter at the local bowling alley. With facial powder seeming less romantic than perfume, Jim leaves it in the storeroom as the trio hits the streets.

From there, the movie follows a somewhat formulaic path mixing both elements of film noir (both the cops and the criminals spread a dragnet over LA looking for the lost drugs) and teensploitation films (see Americas youth corrupted by demon drugs). Needless to say, the three friends find out from the newspapers that the valise contained two pounds of heroin, and, somewhat improbably, they recover the can after sifting through piles of garbage at the city dump. They soon decide to seize this opportunity to realize their dreams of wealth, and with the help of an ex-con junkie who works with Nick, they begin to unload the junk across the city.

As one could imagine, three teenagers and a drug-addled loser living in a tarpaper shack can’t outwit both the crime syndicate and the police forever.  Both sides of the law finally close in on the four drug entrepreneurs,  and the movie moves towards a conclusion that would warm the heart of the then recently-retired Joseph Breen. (Of course, two-thirds of the movie spends most of its time flaunting the production code openly).

 

Commentary

So ‘Stakeout on Dope Street’ isn’t the best film noir ever made; heck, it isn’t even the best film noir released in the spring of 1958 (that honor would go to ‘Touch of Evil’, which premiered a week or so before ‘Stakeout’). It does, however, have a few things that make it an interesting movie.

First off, the movie was shot on location in Los Angeles; like the best on-location noir (such as ‘The Naked City’), ‘Stakeout’ gives you a feeling of the other side of the city, aware from the bright lights and celebrities. They’re all there–nice businesses like a jewelers or a Mercedes dealership, average businesses like a grocery or bowling alley, seedy businesses like a pawnshop or a pool hall.

The realism continues as we get to know the three main characters, Ves, Jim and Nick. Nick and Ves aren’t that interesting, stereotypes in their own ways–Nick is the overbearing bodybuilder with no moral qualms; Ves is the ultimate follower, who’s just bright enough to deliver groceries for his father. Not really ‘Father Knows Best’ or ‘Leave It To Beaver’ types.

Jim is more interesting; the sensitive artist type, his dream is to use any money he makes from selling the drugs to settle down and marry his girlfriend, Kathy, and travel to Rome and Florence to learn art. Goaded on by Kathy, he’s the one with the moral qualms about dope dealing; he’s the one who feels he needs to find out first hand about the after affects of dope; he’s the one who’s the ultimate hero of the movie. He’s a beatnik without beard, bongos and goofy language; he may be rebel, but it’s in the cause of art and love.

The movie also takes a look at some of the social realities of the Eisenhower years, painting a more interesting picture than the nostalgic image that the country generally carries of that time. Kathy remarks offhand how she wishes Jim would draw a picture of her where she wasn’t nude, so her family could see it. In an extended and graphic sequence, we also hear and see Danny, the junkie they hired as their dealer, go through the pain and terror of detox.

 

Interesting trivia

This movie was the directorial debut for Irvin Kershner; 22 years later, he would go on to direct ‘Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back’. ‘Empire’ would be the highlight of Kershner’s otherwise mediocre career. The last feature film that he directed was ‘Robocop 2’ in 1990.

Mystery novelist James Ellroy picked ‘Stakeout’ as one of the movies to be broadcast on the night that he was guest programmer for Turner Classic Movies in 2007. During an interview with TCM host Robert Osborne, Ellroy stated that the movie had a special resonance for him since it was set in 1958 in Los Angeles; that was the year  when Ellroy’s mother was brutally murdered in L.A. In 2003, the book ‘Black Dahlia Avenger’ posited that  Ellroy’s mother was murdered by the same person who killed the Black Dahlia.

The soundtrack to the movie, bopping along to the cool tones of West Coast Jazz, was performed by the Hollywood Chamber Jazz Group. The soundtrack was released on LP back in the ‘50s, and can still be found on eBay. –JMD