Union City (87 minutes) 1980/Rated PG – starring Deborah Harry, Dennis Lipscomb, Irina Maleeva, Everett McGill, Pat Benatar, Tony Azito, Sam McMurray, and Terina Lewis. Directed by Mark Reichert. Originally released through Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment.
Flying well under the radar when it hit screens in 1980, “Union City” saw only limited release in big city “art” houses. The only reason to rent it today is if you are a fan of the group Blondie or of Pat Benatar. As a feature film, the plot is extremely threadbare. Based on a short story, it’s a suspense movie with a “twist” ending, but the lack of subplots and character developments make it seem like an expanded episode of the old “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” television show.
Set in 1953 New Jersey, the movie’s director, Mark Reichert, and his crew, do the best they can with an obviously tight budget, filming scenes in retro static shots, awash in contrasts, much like noir movies of the ‘40s. Even though this opus is in color, it “feels” like an old black and white flick.
The story revolves around an accountant and his wife, played by Debbie Harry, who live in a bland apartment and are just making ends meet. Harry is bored with her husband, who tends to be overly retentive. Someone is drinking from the bottles their milkman sets outside their door every week, so the accountant figures he’ll tie a string from one of the bottles to his finger while he rests in bed. Sure enough, he catches a vagrant swilling his dairy product late one night, and after a scuffle, the accountant batters the vagrant to death. He places the body in the empty apartment next door, in a bed closet. The building’s superintendent is having an affair with Debbie, yet the accountant never notices because he’s too caught up in trying to keep the lover out of the vacant apartment.
As the accountant, played by Dennis Lipscomb, becomes more frenzied and insane, the movie finally comes alive. For the first hour, it seems like the pacing of the film stretches endlessly in its rather simple set-up of the plot. By the time Pat Benatar and Tony Azito appear on the scene as newlyweds, moving into the vacant apartment, anyone can see the “twist” ending coming a mile away.
Interestingly enough, Harry and Benatar stand out as the best actors in the film. With her subtle jibes at her nervous-nelly spouse and her gradual awakening to love in the arms of Everett McGill, Debbie Harry plays her scenes in an understated, mature manner. Benatar has a short period of screen time, yet she and Azito seem perfectly at ease and capture one’s attention in their naturalness amongst all the overacting Lipscomb is throwing about and by the flamboyant ministrations exerted by a kooky neighbor, played by Irina Maleeva. McGill, along with the actors in the roles of the vagrant and Lipscomb’s secretary, all come across as stilted and amateurish.
Chris Stein, the lead guitarist who formed the group Blondie with Harry, composed the movie’s score, and again, for what had to have been a very low budget, he is able to switch from dance hall orchestral tunes to smoky jazz ensemble pieces to spooky tinklings on the Mellotron with an effective, scene-enhancing flair. (Trivia note: Kathryn Bigelow, one of cinema’s first female film directors – “Point Break,” “Strange Days,” etc. – and former wife of James Cameron, was a script girl on this production).
While not pulpy enough to rank with Jim Thompson works like “The Grifters,” and not noirish enough to capture the essence of ‘40s standards like “Out of the Past,” “Union City” falls into a limbo land of wannabe style and mood, ultimately never finding a penetrating or lasting voice.
© 2000 Ned Truslow