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The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Union Station

A lot of classic American movies – from F.W. Murnau’s City Girl to Howard Hawks’ Scarface to Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot – take place either partially or entirely in Chicago but the majority of them were unfortunately shot on Hollywood studio backlots. More often than not, filmmakers wanting to depict my fair city during Hollywood’s golden age had to settle for recreating the city’s Board of Trade, tenements, diners and outdoor ‘El’ Station entrances on elaborate sets. As I mentioned in an earlier post, motion picture production in Chicago did pick up significantly in the film noir boom years of the post-WWII era. One terrific example that I recently stumbled across for the first time is Paramount’s Union Station from 1950, a tense little crime thriller starring the great duo of William Holden and Barry Fitzgerald. Although set in Chicago, most of it was shot in Hollywood with Los Angeles’ iconic Union Station standing in for the title location in the Windy City. (The film actually contains such a deft use of L.A. locations that it is prominently featured in Thom Andersen’s brilliant “gray market” documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself.) However, at least some prominent location work took place in Chicago; the movie’s first third features an exciting daylight chase between cops and kidnappers on the Chicago Transit Authority’s now-defunct Stockyard Branch Line and the the final action climax takes place in the Chicago Tunnel Company’s underground railroad tunnels. Anyone interested in seeing “old Chicago” on film can’t afford to pass up Union Station for these two scenes alone. Fortunately, there’s plenty else to recommend the movie too.

The primary virtues of Union Station are its efficiency, tightness and speed. Directed by former ace cinematographer Rudolph Mate (who once upon a time was Carl Theodore Dreyer’s D.P. of choice), this noir gem is expertly shot and paced and, as a piece of storytelling, does not contain an ounce of flab. As a director, Mate may not have been a great artist but he was a very good craftsman and, God knows, Hollywood has always needed those too. Union Station starts on a train and it fittingly also moves like one: Joyce Willecombe (Nancy Olson), a secretary commuting home from work via rail, spies two suspicious-looking men, one of whom appears to be wearing a gun. Anticipating the CTA’s “If you see something, say something” ad campaign by about sixty years, Joyce reports her concern to a skeptical train conductor, who turns the matter over to railroad cop William Calhoun (Holden). Calhoun also has misgivings but because he is clearly the best and most dedicated railroad cop on earth, he soon finds out that the suspicious men are at the center of a kidnapping plot involving the blind teenage daughter of Joyce’s boss, local millionaire Henry Murchison. Calhoun soon finds himself teaming up with a local cop named Inspector Donnelly (Fitzgerald) in order to apprehend the kidnappers and return the girl safely to her father – all within a briskly paced 80 minutes.

Barry Fitzgerald, William Holden and the “Venetian blind effect”:

Alfred Hitchcock famously said that a film was only as good as its villain and Union Station has a memorably nasty baddie at its core: Joe Beacom (Lyle Bettger), the lead kidnapper, is a sadist who takes delight in tormenting the terrified blind girl in his clutches and also has no qualms about shooting his own girlfriend (the great character actress Jan Sterling) when she gets in his way. But the cops in Union Station can be pretty nasty too; Calhoun and Donnelly recklessly break into one suspect’s apartment and, in order to get pressing information from another, completely disregard his civil liberties by threatening to throw him in front of an oncoming train – more than twenty years before Dirty Harry. Through parallel editing, this allows director Mate to generate suspense about what will happen when these characters eventually do collide in the memorable underground tunnel climax. Fortunately, although Joyce is young and attractive and sticks around until the end of the film in order to help the police, there is no real sense that she and Calhoun are going get together romantically (as would unquestionably happen if the film were to be remade today). Union Station is too much of a work of termite art par excellence to allow itself to be saddled with a superfluous love subplot.

There is, however, one scene where the movie slows down just long enough to allow us to get to know the lead characters a bit better. Calhoun and Donnelly retire to the latter’s home for a drink and conversation the night before the final showdown with Beacom. (Since Barry Fitzgerald was Hollywood’s favorite drunken leprechaun, such an alcoholic detour is pretty much a foregone conclusion from the film’s beginning.) As Donnelly adroitly prepares hot rum toddies, Calhoun informs him, “I’m a cop twenty four hours a day. All I care about is my railroad station.” Donnelly’s sensible reply is, “A good cop has to be working full time but a man has to be careful he doesn’t become all cop.” It is a quiet, touching scene, the only one in the movie that is not there expressly to move the plot forward and yet somehow it makes the entire movie.

If you decide to watch Union Station and feel like enjoying a hot toddy along with Chicago’s finest, here is what appears to be Inspector Donnelly’s recipe:

– a shot of rum
– 1 teaspoon of sugar
– hot water to taste
– one clove
– a cinnamon stick

Union Station is available on DVD in a serviceable edition from Olive films. Thanks to David Hanley for bringing this “Chicago film” to my attention.

Chicago Plays Itself in Union Station:

Death in the Stockyards:

The Chicago Tunnel Company’s Underground Railroad Tunnels:

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

42 responses to “The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Union Station

  • Zach D.

    Great write-up. I hope to try that recipe one day!

  • Mark

    I’m not sure the film is actually meant to be situated in Chicago? The city itself is never named, and I get the impression that instead we are supposed to image that it’s one of those anonymous metropolitan areas like the “Center City” (L.A.) of The Street with No Name, that we could imagine as your home town or mine. There’s a New York argument as well, that Joyce boards her train, the local 42, from West Hampton, about 75 miles outside of Manhattan. New York had stockyards as well, though they didn’t survive the fifties. Nevertheless, the stockyards in this film are the old L.A. Union Stockyards — oil derricks and palm trees in the background of all those shots. So Holden jumps off the Chicago El and into the L.A. cattle pens — we’ve got to hand it to Hollywood!

    • michaelgloversmith

      Mark, thanks for commenting. You are correct that it appears to be a universal, hybridized city. However, I still say that it resembles Chicago more than any other: where else can you get off at Union Station and get on the ‘El’ within a short walking distance?

  • Mitchell Brown

    Hello again. Have been enjoying your blog immensely. There is quite a strange little sci-fi film from the late 50s in which giant locust attack the City of Big Shoulders. It’s called The Beginning of the End. Mike and the Robots do it total justice on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and it is not really a Chicago movie per se, but one that you might like to have a look at just to see what Hollywood’s image of a hysterical Heartland would look like.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Mitchell, thanks for reminding me of The Beginning of the End. My wife and I went on a Chicago movie pub crawl last summer sponsored by the Chicago History Museum. The tour guide mentioned The Beginning of the End as a film that had some great shots of the Wrigley Building. I’ll have to track it down and make it the subject of a future “Secret History” post!

  • J.J. Sedelmaier

    “Mickey One” starring Warren Beatty is another great Chicago-based film !

  • Irwin Drobny

    Back in the late 1940’s, the film Call Northside 777 based on a Chicago crime story had some interesting Chicago neighborhood location sites
    Irwin Drobny

  • J.J. Sedelmaier

    Northside 777 is a wonderful example of location shooting in Chicago ! A “Naked (Windy) City” feel. . .

  • Tom Stein

    I believe you are incorrect about “Unoin Station” locales. The stock yard is the L.A. stockyard. The “el” scenes are from New York. Chicago tunnels have an arched or curved ceiling. The ones in the movie are beveled, no curves. I have no idea where those tunnels were, but would certainly like to know.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks for the response. You are correct about the L.A. stockyard. The “el” scenes were unquestionably shot in Chicago by a second unit though. There are identifiable Chicago landmarks in those shots. I’m not 100% sure about the Underground Railroad Tunnels, which ceased operation in 1959 (they are not the same thing as the Chicago subway tunnels). The tunnels in the film do look like this photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_Tunnel_Company

      • Tom Stein

        Thanks for the quick reply. But after looking at the picture you cited, I still say the tunnels are not Chicago for reasons previously stated. Shape.

  • Alexis Soto

    I believe the film did have a sort of love factor that was underlying. Throughout the film Joyce and Ol’ Willie were bonding. This was capped off by the big smile he gave her in the end and by him allowing her to call him WIllie. Although it was not shown explicitly, I believe their love story; if there really is one, is supposed to be left for us viewers to interpret since Willie was a cop 24/7. The film was great though and did show off some great Chicago scenery.

  • Voyo Gabrilo

    At the end you say, of the scene between Calhoun and Donnelly, “It is a quiet, touching scene, the only one in the movie that is not there expressly to move the plot forward and yet somehow it makes the entire movie.” I think this is precisely what not just “Union Station” was about, but cinema in its entirety at that time. And, sadly, I think that’s gone away. The film was great because it moved the plot, without nonsensical scenes that films today are ridden with. The story was about a kidnapping, and thus the film was about a kidnapping. It’s focus, directness, pacing was what made it work. It was not a genius of a film, but it did what it was supposed to which not only made it enjoyable, but also respectable. Today’s films have an innumerable amount of subplots, that our era’s cinema could simply be dubbed subplot; a main plot in most movies produced by Hollywood is like a book of short stories, there is a thin thread stringing multiple story lines together.

    Thanks for the recipe. Perfect in time for Autumn and Winter.

  • Ryan Robinson

    I agree with your point about the no romance between Calhoune and Joyce, because in today’s society, movies seem to make the romantic subplot the norm. I believe that the romantic subplot takes away from the main integrity of the movie. Calhoune is portrayed as a tough, intimidating, cop, and I feel that a romance with Joyce would take away from that character.

  • Giovanna Mule

    You talked about how Joyce saw the two suspicious men on the train and reported them, but the conductor and the rail road cop thought she was not believable. I find it ironic that they did not believe her in the beginning yet she was right about everything she told them and helped the cops out a lot in their investigation. I agree with you when you say it is a touching seen between Donnelly and Calhoune, when Donnelly’s says “A good cop has to be working full time but a man has to be careful he doesn’t become all cop.” I think it shows a softer side to both of them which adds a nice touch to this film so it is not all so serious. And thanks for the recipe.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Good point about the cops not believing Joyce at first. Do you think the filmmakers are being critical of the implicitly sexist attitudes of these male characters? There’s a very similar moment in Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW where a police-officer character laments having to track down faulty leads based only on “female intuition.”

      Incidentally, I love the fact that Joyce sticks around to help out with the investigation. There’s NO reason for her to be there! 19/20

  • Salwa Merchant

    Throughout the film, Union Station, we get to see the location of the film was not only Chicago but also in L.A. Throughout the film we saw the relations between the actors and how the main ingredient was trust. Joyce wanted the Union Police officer to trust her and help her find her friend who went missing and needed to be freed from Beacom. In the film we got to see the reactions from the police team about helping out Joyce finding her friend. If Joyce had not noticed the two strange men on the train than probably she wouldn’t have know that her friend was kidnapped. After noticing the two guys she had told the train conductor to let the union police know that there are two suspicious men and one of them has a gone. It’s interesting to see these details throughout films because they can give you an idea of what the story is about. They don’t add excessive details but they add a good amount of details so that the film catches the audiences attention. Though sometimes directors put in a lot of detail its there for a reason and that reason is so that we are aware of what the director is explaining in movies whether it is from 1900s or the early 2000s. Though the film was mostly picturized at the Union Station it did show other locations such as the the l train, the stockyard, and the tunnel.

  • Maddie Rosenberg

    This movie definitely surprised me, and felt very short. I loved the characters, storyline, and of course the location. When you were talking about how great of a villain Joe Beacom was, it made me think of one specific scene. When he was shooting at the cop and his girlfriend, he could care less about her and left her behind. The transition from her rolling onto the street and the car tire stopping in place, looked like it ran over her head. It wasn’t Joe driving in the next scene, but it shows what he could have done had she not been on the sidewalk the whole time. Joe is one of the greatest villains I’ve seen in a while, he generally doesn’t care and just does what he wants. I thought he had a soft side because he was dating someone, and the woman was concerned about the blind girl. So when he shot her, that caught me off guard. I also loved all the scenes that took place at the station itself. Generating suspense and foreshadowing the dangers to come from that one train scene with the suspect was very clever. Especially when Joe takes the blind girl down in the tunnels and they ride all the way to the train station; very suspenseful. I was the most horrified for the girl at that point, thinking she would fall out or do something stupid to try to get away. Joe would’ve lost his patience and just killed her right there.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Nice analysis of Joe as a villain, Maddie. His girlfriend is a great character too. The scene where she’s in the hospital talking to the cops is one of the most gripping in the film and I’m sorry we didn’t talk about it in class. Jan Sterling’s acting is so superb that it is totally convincing that her character has a bullet in her gut and that she has done a complete turnaround regarding her loyalty to her boyfriend. 20/20

  • Young Kim

    I totally agree with you that Rudolph Mate is a great cinematographer who expertly shot and executed the plot with a nice brisk pace. I think its because Mate had the characters on the move for most of the film. Mate also moved the camera a lot and led us into the direction of the action. It gave me the feeling that we were always on our way somewhere and that really helped to set the tone for the entire film. I think this film was great because of how simple it actually was. I was expecting a crazy conspiracy like other film noirs but none of that really happened. It was a straightforward film noir and there is nothing wrong with that formula. I agree that Joe Beacom was a memorable baddie. He was probably the highlight of the film for me. I loved the fact that his empty evil expressions matched the evil actions that he did during the film. His dark and empty stares were really effective in creating a great villain. Joe was a man with a plan and he was great at improvising in tight situations. The icing on the cake was the fact that he knew he was going down so he wanted to take the girl with him. It was refreshing to watch a film with such a cynical villain. The only disagreement I had with your review was the notion that there were no signs of romance between Joyce and Calhoun. I thought that every scene of the two of them showed Calhoun slowly letting down his walls until the very last scene where they actually seem like they were comfortable with each other. Calhoun’s tough guy act was nowhere to be seen and I kind of got the feeling that this would lead them into a closer relationship. I also thought the romantic idea was a little more blatant because Donnelly walked away smiling.

  • Luke Chirayil

    Yeah I’m going to have to agree with Young on the romance part Mr. Smith. There were indeed a few scenes that implied romance with Mr. Calhoun and Joyce, but the movie’s main focus was towards the kidnapping. Overall I did enjoy the plot, the characters and the cinematography because as you mentioned in the review,” Union Station starts on a train and it fittingly also moves like one…” It really did have a fluid flow all throughout and every scene held some kind of importance in the film which complimented one another. What I really did enjoy about this movie the most was probably the choice of music for the specific scene. It was incorporated very appropriately and entertainingly. It was very enjoyable to watch Joe progressively loose his mind at the end and not realizing that he had a very good chance of being caught or even killed. For a movie that required not so much thought and complexity, it was produced and directed very well. Just like everyone else who has seen the movie, the scene were Donnelly and Calhoun had their downtime to mingle with one another and have a drink was quite funny. As they are talking away about the problem at hand Donnelly pouring their drinks and taking the one with more rum was a well integrated scene.

  • Sahar Lakhani

    The part when you mentioned that Union Station is an excellent choice of film to watch if you want to explore and see more of the old Chicago is something I agree with. The chase scene of the kidnappers and the final Underground Railroad scene both took place in Chicago, and provided the viewers with unique mise en scene and lighting. The movie was a fast paced crime film and therefore didn’t have much time to pay attention on the romance of Joyce and William. I do think it was better that way because that would add a new story to the film, and it seemed fine the way it was. However, if the film was made today, viewers would be shown a romantic relationship between Joyce and William as opposed to the sort of professional and vague one we were actually shown in the film. The film overall in my opinion was a great thriller. The final climax scene was intense and had me at the edge of my seat, curious to know what will happen next.

  • Dan Wardzala

    The most I take from this other than the noir style that it is, is the fact that plot lines differed very significantly from then and now. Like previously stated when Joyce gets the conductors attention to alert him on the suspicious characters, they play it off like no big deal. She is allowed to help in the proceeding of this case. If this were a movie now a days, we would see her get abducted after following Joe to get away car where more of the story unfolds. It is almost unpredictable that everything goes well without a hiccup. I love all these films we see in class because we all need this break from mainstream plots.

  • Matthew Teichert

    I thought this was the best film noir movie I have seen in my entire life. from the moment it started I was captivated by the great acting and the scenery.Although the scenery is from many city’s it looks like it could fit into one city that is actually lived in and not some prop in a movie studio. The characters in the film were great at their acting and making you believe that this was a real life incident. I especially like that there was no love subplot that many movies today have shoehorned into them,this allows the movie to be succinct and exciting. There was not one moment in the movie where I was distracted by background characters or anything else, the movie did a great job of holding my attention for its entirety and I love it for this.

  • Jim Downing

    An efficient review on the film! One statement from your post that stuck with me is how you said the film “begins on a train and fittingly runs like one”. To me, that is the perfect description of the film. As previously stated, the film is very efficiently shot and progresses (or RIDES) at a great pace, and just like a train, you are able to sit back and enjoy the ride without being [visually] overwhelmed or forced to adapt to your surroundings. It’s a very “comfortable” watch.

    The most sentimental scene in the film is easily when Donnelly and Calhoun enjoy the drink together in Donnelly’s apartment. It’s a very relaxed and humanizing scene that almost compensates for the antagonist, Joe Beacom’s, sociopathic ways. It’s a very uplifting scene for a noir to have, as most seem to progress deeper and deeper into darkness without a redeeming ending, as this film also has.

  • Anthony Peter

    The common caricature of film noir that I know of is a black and white smokey law office with some narration from a smooth talking detective. I’m beginning to learn that that is not necessarily what film noir is, after reading that this is a classic example. I’m glad, because this movie was fun. I didn’t know that Hitchcock had said that a movie is only as good as its villain, and I would agree! I think Union Station had a fantastic villain with a bad past, with an equally engaging gang of heroes that just got it done, often disregarding rules.

  • Darcy

    Even though the basic film noir conventions were prevalent in Union Station, it did seem to be lacking a femme fatale character to fully complete the film. I guess the closest character to fulfill this role would be Joyce, because she had the spunk and snarkiness of a femme fatale (such as when she gave a snarky remark about how she was too busy to giving her name and address to Calhoun to keep track of the kidnappers), but she wasn’t coy and disastrous enough to be considered a full out femme fatale. Also, Union Station brushed on issues of sexism and misogyny in the 1950’s (which unfortunately is still very relevant today), but I would have loved to see it delve more into it, even though it was supposed to be a plot-based film. For example, when Joyce told the conductor that she saw a man carrying a gun on the train, he didn’t believe her and didn’t do anything about it. He also told her that it was probably because she was on a train and was seeing things, and it’s depressing to see how he brushed her off, when really she was following the “If you see something, say something,” ad campaign that you mentioned in your review, and she couldn’t go on withholding crucial information. An example of misogyny in Union Station is when Joyce is at the train station, and a random man walks up to her and says, “Saturday night and no date? Well that’s a fine predicament! Should we go to the movie?”, and is a perfect example of how men think it’s OK to harass women who are alone. Luckily Calhoun came to her rescue, but I would have liked to see Joyce defend herself against him, instead of a man coming in to save the day.

    The most climactic scene, in my opinion, was the tunnel scene at the end because not only was it suspenseful, but it played at the fears of the blind girl, Lorna, because she couldn’t see what was going on (well, I guess no one really could because it was a dark tunnel, but you get my point), and had to rely on the voice of Calhoun to save her life. Also, it reminded me immensely of the tunnel scene at the end of The Third Man, especially the part where Beacon was pointing the gun in the tunnel, which mirrored the part in The Third Man where Harry Lime was pointing a gun in the tunnel and he looked crazed. Even though both films were “show offs” between the protagonist and antagonist, Union Station had the edition of Lana screaming in the background to further heighten the tension, and gave you the whole “damsel in distress” vibe (although I would like to see it in reverse and to have it be “damoiseau in distress” 🙂

  • Brian Skeggs

    I enjoyed your review of Union Station very much and found you covered all the parts that stuck out in the movie to me from the old Chicago stockyard branch line to the drinking scene. The movies pace was excellent and did not allow your mind to wander at any point, which is impressive since movies now a days have many points in the film that are irrelevant to the overall plot. I also got a good laugh out of the reference you made to Joyce anticipating the CTA’s “if you see something say something” campaign. Between that and the fast pace of the film Union Station was definitely ahead of its time. I also found every camera angle used in the film to be just as important to the next and found none of them to be useless and that they all added to the whole fast pace of the movie.

  • Jim Alexander

    I found the villain Joe Beacom to be pretty startling. For the 1950’s to have such a nasty and crazed villain in a movie must have been a shock for the viewer to watch. Additionally, having him terrorize a blind girl adds to the nasty factor. I wonder if there was any backlash after the film came out to have Beacom used in the way they used him? Colhoun was a tough guy himself. They had to have him be a tough guy in order to be on the playing level with Beacom.

    The Chicago stockyards are unrecognizable these days, however, the Merchandise Mart train stop was fairly recognizable to me. The trains looked almost like trolley cars, it was pretty fascinating to see.

  • John Betsoleiman

    I completely agree with you, Mr. Smith, in terms of the efficiency of this film. Typically, from what I find, there are shots in most films I have seen that the movie could have done without. Cinematography plays just as big a role in film as the plot does and when I see a shot that isn’t important, or just looks out of place, it will bug me for the rest of the film. I found that in this film, there were no shots that I thought shouldn’t have been there. Every single shot was well executed, and made sense where it was. I also like what you said about the scene with Donnelly and Calhoun at Donnelly’s house. Even though the scene is relatively slower than the pace of the film and doesn’t really push the film forward much, it still is a necessary scene. It gives the audience a personal look into these two characters and see their differences and similarities. The line that Donnelly says to Calhoun, “A good cop has to be working full time but a man has to be careful he doesn’t become all cop.” just fits so brilliantly and so perfect in this scene. Overall I personally enjoyed this film very much, especially the extremely well done cinematography and the cut to the chase plot.

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