A callous and cold noir, Union Station is directed by Rudolph Maté and features a screenplay by The Big Heat scribe Sydney Boehm. The 1950 movie takes some serious risks for its time and endeavours to show the police as less than the helpful organization of most outings of the era. It’s not a seismic shift, but imagining cops as possible torturers and rule-breakers wasn’t exactly the norm.
Union Station was shot in Los Angeles’ main railway station of the same name, but there are no clear pointers as to where the movie takes place. Some have suggested Chicago’s Union Station as the spot, but its actual whereabouts don’t really matter much. The main thrust is found in how cavernous such a rail station can be, how such a swarming place can provide a shield for reprehensible deeds.
The picture opens with Joyce (Nancy Olson) boarding a train. Trouble brews when she spies two suspicious men. She reports the issue to the conductor, who suggests she pass the information along to Detective Lt. William Calhoun (William Holden). Joyce just so happens to be the secretary to the well-heeled Henry Murchison (Herbert Hayes).
And it just so happens that Murchison’s blind daughter Lorna (Allene Roberts) has been abducted, with the railway station serving as the main exchange point for the ransom. The two men on the train were mixed up in the whole business and Calhoun is on the trail, with the sage Inspector Donnelly (Barry Fitzgerald) lending a hand.
Over the course of 80 minutes, Union Station weaves a surprisingly dark tale of kidnapping and criminality. The main man in charge of the kidnapping is the coarse Joe Beacom (Lyle Bettger). He thwacks poor Lorna when she screams too loudly and leaves his lady (Jan Sterling) to croak in the rain-slicked street, so that shows you just the kind of dude he is.
In order to snag Beacom, Calhoun and Co. attempt trap after trap in the vast Union Station. There are officers everywhere, making switches and finding information and tailing wary characters. There are drops and they pick up a few of Beacom’s thugs, but things don’t go well for the crooks. One is flattened by cattle.
Things reach a fever pitch when Donnelly and Calhoun snag Vince (Fred Graff), a dubious joke of a man who nearly turned on Beacom in a panic. The cops gather round and beat the snot out of him before dragging him off “somewhere quiet” and tarring him up some more. They threaten to toss him in front of a train. Donnelly’s good cop shtick cracks when he suggests they make it look like an accident.
It’s apparent that Union Station has had it with by-the-book policemen. It proposes a world of cutting corners, with the boys in blue no longer standing for troublesome things like due process and civil rights. Vince is just a petty hood and his life doesn’t matter, not when there’s bigger fish to fry.
The action of Union Station is splashed against the fact that Joyce doesn’t even think it was a good idea to entrust the cops in the first place. She regrets it over and over and the film doesn’t even try to tease a relationship between Calhoun and the dame. It is content to lurk and allow Daniel L. Fapp’s lens to parse the endless railway station throng.
So yes, Maté’s film is cynical when it comes to law enforcement. But it’s also realistic to a point. The cops know things about the lawless that Lorna and Murchison don’t. They know how filth like Beacom think, even if their own attempts to catch him wind up in sinister flashes of hot lead.
In the end, this film noir inaugurates the “war” to come between crime and the law on the big screen. Fitzgerald’s character, in one of his many brilliant scenes, remembers how wars are won. He remembers when he faced cannonballs. And he remembers that the “good guys” only got ahead when they jumped in the fire without asking too many damn questions.