True to its title, the story kicks into gear on a train, where Joyce Willecombe, the personal secretary of wealthy businessman Henry Murchison, notices a series of small but suspicious things: a car racing the train to the next station, the car's occupants boarding the train while pretending they don't know each other, and a hidden gun one of them is carrying. Joyce reports on this to a conductor, who treats her as a nuisance but finally gives in and calls the cops, one of whom is William "Tough Willy" Calhoun, chief of the Union Station police. Skeptical at first, Calhoun becomes a believer when further sleuthing by Joyce reveals a suitcase secreted in a locker, containing the belongings of Lorna Murchison, the blind daughter of Joyce's businessman boss. Lorna has evidently been kidnapped, but her dad spurns assistance from the police as a possible threat to her life; he'd rather obey orders, pay the ransom, and get her back safe and sound, assuming that the abductors get around to sending a ransom note and then live up to their bargain. Joyce and Calhoun stay on the case anyway, joined by hard-boiled Inspector Donnelly and additional officers at various points in the story, which goes on to include everything from one crook's death in a cattle stampede to another's ruthless murder of his girlfriend. All this happens in the general vicinity of Union Station, which didn't see this much excitement again until Brian De Palma made it a centerpiece of The Untouchables (1987) almost forty years later. The climax takes place in the catacombs under the station, always a trusty location for suspense, as demonstrated by movies as different as The Phantom of the Opera (especially the 1925 and 1943 versions) and The Third Man, which had opened in US theaters earlier in 1950.
The punchy visuals of Union Station are easy to explain. It was photographed by Daniel L. Fapp, whose career brought in seven Academy Award® nominations and a win for the 1961 musical West Side Story. And it was directed by former cinematographer Rudolph Maté, who apprenticed with Alexander Korda, worked in Europe with Karl Freund and Carl Theodor Dreyer, then relocated to Hollywood in 1935 and became a director in 1947. He was even busier than Holden in 1950, starting the year with the weepy No Sad Songs for Me and turning out Union Station between D.O.A., a major noir classic, and Branded, an Alan Ladd vehicle. Maté gives Union Station a sense of propulsive movement in every scene that counts, keeping the action quickly paced and coherent no small feat in a movie with so many momentary subplots and minor characters that it's been likened to multiple-storyline dramas of the Grand Hotel (1932) variety. Its ancestry has also been traced to Jules Dassin's classic The Naked City (1948), released two years earlier; its most famous descendant may be The French Connection of 1971.
Set in Chicago and shot in Los Angeles except for a few long-distance shots of a New York elevated railway, Union Station is based on Thomas Walsh's novel Nightmare in Manhattan, which first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post under the title Manhattan Madness and went on to win the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best first mystery, bestowed by the Mystery Writers of America in 1950. Ladd and John Lund were reportedly considered for the Calhoun character before Holden reluctantly signed on; an extra benefit of recruiting him was the opportunity to pair him again with Nancy Olson, who'd played the aspiring writer Holden's character befriends in Sunset Blvd. and seems equally at ease portraying Joyce, the conveniently single woman who sets the Union Station story rolling. The cast's other standout is Barry Fitzgerald, a Naked City veteran who puts his Irish-American persona to good use as Donnelly, a seasoned cop who supplements his muscle-work with an occasional prayer.
Film noir had its heyday between 1940 and 1960, starting as an edgy extension of the German expressionist style (Maté had shot Vampyr for Dreyer in 1932) and turning in more offbeat directions as World War II receded in memory and newer, murkier anxieties invaded Americans' dreams. A police procedural at heart, Union Station is just what you'd expect at the midpoint of the cycle, combining the shadowy images and restless pacing of '40s noir with the growing cynicism and anger of the '50s variety, crystallized most intensely in a remarkable scene where the cops bully a crook into confessing by dangling him over the tracks and swearing they'll toss him under an oncoming train if he doesn't cough up what they want in the next few seconds. Reviewers have treated the picture respectfully, with the New York Times calling it "a tense crime thriller," the Chicago Reader describing it as a "nail-biter" directed by "one of the better...American neorealists" of the period, Time Out London deeming it "a sharp, brilliantly staged thriller," and Variety saying that while Holden seems rather "youthful in appearance" for his top-cop job, he is "in good form" nevertheless. These critics are right. More than half a century old, Union Station holds up well.
Producer: Jules Schermer
Director: Rudolph Maté
Screenplay: Sydney Boehm, based on Nightmare in Manhattan by Thomas Walsh
Cinematographer: Daniel L. Fapp
Film Editing: Ellsworth Hoagland
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Earl Hedrick
Music: Irvin Talbot
With: William Holden (Lt. William Calhoun), Nancy Olson (Joyce Willecombe), Barry Fitzgerald (Inspector Donnelly), Lyle Bettger (Joe Beacom), Jan Sterling (Marge Wrighter), Allene Roberts (Lorna Murchison), Herbert Heyes (Henry Murchison), Don Dunning (Gus Hadder), Fred Graff (Vince Marley), James Seay (Detective Shattuck), Parley E. Baer (Detective Gottschalk), Ralph Sanford (Detective Fay), Richard Karlan (Detective Stein), Bigelow Sayre (Detective Ross), Charles Dayton (Howard Kettner), Jean Ruth (Pretty Girl), Paul Lees (Young Man Masher), Harry Hayden (Conductor Skelly).
by David Sterritt