Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Favorite Movie: UNION STATION (1950) starring William Holden, Nancy Olson and Barry Fitzgerald

Meant to post this earlier this week, still celebrating National Train Day festivities, but what with one thing and another - mainly Google Blogger's work stoppage - I'm belatedly posting it today. Hopefully it will show up where and when it's meant to.

UNION STATION is a very nice noir type 1950's movie directed by Rudolph Mate - I use the word 'nice' because really, it's one of those films that might  be instantly forgettable except for the evil machinations of it's nasty villain played by the one and only Lyle Bettger who made a living playing these sorts. I mean, the guy is scurrilous - smacking around a blind girl, for instance. Who else in films would do this with such energy? He had a habit too of being done in near and around cars and trains. Remember him as Klaus the elephant trainer being upended (in his convertible) by the speeding rain in THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH? And boy did he deserve it.

Well, anyway, the oozy, slimy, vicious, movie-nasty Lyle Bettger is the main reason for seeing this film. Also William Holden's 'shy-boy' smile which is really a killer-diller. Not to mention the whole preposterous idea that one of the bad guys is killed by a cattle stampede in a modern day city. An unexpected twist.I also like that the men in the film appear to need the help of a mere female, personal secretary Nancy Olson whose curiosity and cany interference are the only reasons a bunch of kidnappers are scotched pretty quickly by the stalwart cops of the Railroad Service who populate Chicago's Union Station. I'm assuming Chicago, because of the nearby stockyards. (Can you imagine the smell in the station on windy days? But that's a surmise for another day.)

Here's the basic story: A teenage girl (played by Allene Roberts) who happens to be blind, is kidnapped one day by bad guys who are using Union Station as the managing point - ransom wise. (We don't see the actual kidnapping so we don't really know how that was done.)

Joyce Willecomb, the personal secretary who moves the whole storyline forward, is played by Nancy Olson, an odd sort of actress who, while not beautiful, was in many ways better than beautiful - she was interesting. 1950, by the way, is the same year she also appeared with William Holden in SUNSET BOULEVARD. In UNION STATION she plays personal secretary to Henry Murchison, a rich man who is the father of the kidnap victim.

After having been dropped off at the train one afternoon, she is headed towards Union Station and home when she notices a couple of men acting oddly. They had rushed together in a car to catch the train but then boarded as if they didn't know each other. Once in their separate seats, Joyce notices that one of the men has a gun in a chest holster. She reports what she's seen to a conductor, then to the chief of train detectives, Bill Calhoun (played by William Holden) once she reaches Union Station.

Calhoun at first poo-poos her fears, but then begins paying attention when the men show up at the station behaving suspiciously. He gets some of his fellow detectives to follow-up, just to see what's what. In the meantime, Mr. Murchison (Joyce's employer) has received a ransom demand and the train cops pretty much know almost immediately that a kidnapping is under way.

Long story short:One of the kidnappers is followed on board a train by Calhoun and his men and when he exits, having picked up on the tail, he is chased up and down and into the stockyards where after a few exciting minutes, he is trampled by a herd of cattle after he, inadvisedly, fires his gun at the cops.

Henry Murchison shows up at Union Station where he is meant to receive the next communication from the kidnappers. The ransom demand is for 100,000 dollars which, in those days, was a great deal of money.Naturally he is hesitant to cooperate with the cops who have now been joined by Barry Fitzgerald as Inspector Donnelly. (One problem with Fitzgerald for me has always been my lifelong inability to understand half of what he says unless I push the volume all the way to the top. Hence, much of what he says is heard by me as a kind of mumble-jumble.)

Anyway, here's the real reason for seeing this film: Lyle Bettger .

He plays the head-honcho kidnapper, Joe Beacom, a guy who has always just fallen short of the big score. But not this time. Nothing is going to stand in the way of his 100,000 dollar pay-off. Not even his moll, played devotedly if typically, by Jan Sterling. Joe Beacom is not only evil but crafty. He sends in his one remaining kidnapping crony to scout the station to make sure the cops aren't involved (he has wrongly assumed that the previous cohort - the one killed by cows - has run off because he was a coward), but that guy too is picked up by Calhoun and his associates AFTER he's recognized by Joyce. Earlier she'd taken it upon herself to follow Joe Beacom when she spots him in the station and is unable to notify any of the cops. She then recognizes the guy Joe has ordered back to the station and points him out to Calhoun and his men. (I like that her character shows a lot of gumption in this movie, a bit atypical for leading ladies of the 1950's.) The cops rough up the bad guy and he reveals an address but they arrive too late.

In between all the action at Union Station, there are scenes in which Bettger relishes his role as villain by treating his moll, Marge, (played by Jan Sterling) with contempt and smacking the blind girl around. What can I say? The guy is pure EVIL. No redeeming values whatsoever. And yet, from some of the snarly comments he makes to his captive, we get an idea from whence he sprang.

When Murchison is contacted again and is ordered to place the money in a certain suitcase and deliver it to Union Station, the cops are waiting, poised to act. A comment about the cops: in this movie they look so much like cops that you have to laugh when they all try to be pretend commuters and/or assorted types hanging about the train station trying to 'blend'. What with their fedoras and overcoats and all, any bad guy worth his salt would be on to them in a minute. Especially when one of the cops is played by my favorite gruff guy, Parley Baer. I love him. He usually played a cop, a detective or a bad guy. I mean any of these guys might just as well have had on t-shirts with flashing neon lights declaring: I AM A COP!

Back to the story. Near the end with Joe Beacom focused on nothing but the money waiting for him, he's left his moll lying half dead in the street after they confront a patrolman who has seen the kidnapped girl tied up in Joe's car. He then takes Lorna (the blind girl) into the dark and dank tunnels beneath Union Station and leaves her in a track cart of some sort - the kind workers use - and warns her not to try and climb out as there are exposed live wires all about. We already know that he intends to kill her regardless. He is just that vicious. She knows it too and does a lot of wailing and sobbing, enough so that Joe keeps telling her he can't see why her father is paying the money to get her back - rub it in, why don't you, Joe.

When Beacom (having left Lorna trapped underground) shows up behind the scenes at the train station, disguised as train conductor, he FINALLY realizes that the cops are onto his scheme. So he does what any self-respecting bad guy would do, he goes ahead with the plot anyway. He commandeers the luggage room and has the suitcase with the money picked up from Murchison by a Western Union messenger. Joyce, on the scene again, spots that the suitcase has been switched with a duplicate and the game is afoot.

Calhoun chases Joe Beacom further into the tunnels, exchanging gun fire along the way. There is a powerful scene when Beacom, shot but still mobile and staggering up the tracks, doesn't realize that the suitcase has fallen open and the money is being scattered over the tracks. This is a guy who has been a loser all his life and will die a loser.

In the end, the bad guys are done for, the kidnapped girl is brought safely back to her father and that's that. A good enough film made memorable by Lyle Bettger's bad guy. Funny thing: in real life, Bettger, the consummate villain, was described as a 'dear, dear man'. He was married to the same woman for 56 years, until her death. He lived to be 88 and died peacefully in 2003,  at his son's  California home after living for many years in Hawaii.


  1. Another great entry for train fans. Terrific summary, makes me want to watch this one again. I love your comment about the cops obviously looking like cops despite their efforts to blend in with the crowd.

  2. Thanks, Jacqueline! I liked this movie more than I thought I would, but of course, I hadn't seen it in several years until recently. Cops in the 1950's didn't know how to blend. HA!

  3. Whew! I'm exhausted and I haven't gone on any train trips in years. Just reading this summary wiped me out.

    However, can't wait to see it. It's been on my TBS (to be seen) list since I saw it here on the list of train-themed movies.

    Glad blogger is behaving now. So many of us were cut off from our favorite blogs for what seemed like days!

  4. Kathy: Sorry about that. I do tend to go on and on sometimes. But I felt this movie called for lots of 'aside' comments from moi. :)

    Netflix has it on 'instant view' so it's nice and handy.

    Yeah, blogger drove me screwy this past week. Ha!

  5. Sounds like a fun movie....I may have to check it out.

  6. Ryan: Oh, it IS a fun movie. Not too deadly noir, and Lyle Bettger is worth the price of admission. :)

  7. I've never heard of 'Union Station' but it sounds just up my street. I chuckled at your description of the cops! I love movies set on trains - I just recently watched 'The Tall Target' in which Dick Powell is a Pinkerton trying to stop an assassination attempt on presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln! There's a nice role for Will Geer as the train conductor too! Recommended, if you haven't seen it.

  8. Nicolas: It's a terrific film. Not great, just a lot of fun to watch the world of that era come to life. The story is set mostly inside Union Station, but also on the surrounding streets, in the tunnels underneath, at the stockyards and occasionally inside a train. Actually, I enjoyed the film more than I'd remembered enjoying it. If you know what I mean.

    I'll look for THE TALL TARGET - unknown to me. But then I was never a big fan of Dick Powell.

  9. All right, so it's not under Mystery of the Blue Train, I watched it. It was okay with the plot and actors. However, no one can tell me that David Suchet is not Poirot. Impossible. He is Poirot channeled or reincanated. He can't be someone else. No way.


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