The release of Paramount’s 1950 film noir, Union Station, on DVD provides fans of noir, trains, and lead actor William Holden the opportunity to view an excellent example of the types of films celebrated by French film critics as “black film.” While many of the canonical film noirs were released in the 1940s, by the 1950s these films had reached their pinnacle in both style and subject matter. Rather than the sunny optimistic image of a Post War America marked by consumerism these gritty low budget films of the 1950s capture the dark side of the American dream and its model of hedonistic consumption.
Directed by Rudolph Mate and photgraphed by Daniel Fapp this film substitutes the beauty and majesty of Los Angeles’ s Union Station for that of Chicago to capture how travel and crime impacted one another in a major American city. More importantly the film illustrates how the ever expanding notion of mobility impacted people and their understanding of the world around them.
The film pairs William Holden with Nancy Olson. The two were also paired in Paramount’s other dark hit film of 1950 Sunset Blvd. In this film Holden plays Lt. William Calhoun an all business railroad cop whose beat is Chicago’s Union Station. Calhoun is shown to be the ideal model of 1940s and 1950s masculinity with his business like approach to his job and his relationship with Joyce Willecombe (Nancy Olson) a secretary and personal friend of a wealthy businessman whose blind daughter is kidnapped by a gang of professional crooks and a man, Joe Beacom (Lyle Bettger), so desperate to make more than 86 dollars a month that he resorts to violence.
Joyce takes a train into the city and along the way meets up with the kidnappers. She informs Calhoun and the local police inspector Donnelly (Barry Fitzgerald) of her suspicions and then actively works with the police to help save her employers daughter from being harmed.
Like many other noir films where the cheapness of life and fear of having the necessary capital to acquire all the consumer goods of the Post War years this film captures the feelings of malaise and anxiety of those individuals who find their only salvation in brutal criminal acts. Therefore when the viewer watches as one of the kidnappers is chased by the police only to be trampled to death by a stampede of cattle in the Chicago stock yards the feeling of death and alienation is palpable.
Yet, unlike the police procedurals which would later flood America’s television screens then and now, the image of law and order in this film is marked by shadowy compositions, illegal methods, and brutal determination rather than following the rule of law. Lt. Calhoun is shown to be a man of determination who uses any means whether it is beating up a suspect or shooting a man in the back to protect his railroad station and its reputation.
The desperation of Beacom and Calhoun explodes in the gripping climax where the two men chase one another into the labyrinthine tunnels beneath the city and the station. The images in the tunnels are illustrative of how noir films use visual composition to make the viewer feel anxious and constricted in the location of the climax and the nature of the story.
While law and order are able to prevail in the end, there is still a sense of cynicism and anxiety that lingers with the characters and the world that they exist in. For fans of classic Hollywood and film noirs this film offers a welcome addition to the growing number of classic films available via DVD. So punch your tickets and head to Union Station for excitement, intrigue, and a murderous dose of entertainment.