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Monday, 24 December 2012

Watching Union City (1980)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

Christmas Day

* Contains spoilers *

When you are watching Union City (1979) because it is an earlier occasion of Deborah Harry acting than you know, and the DVD sleeve credits some unheard-of organ with calling it 'an unqualifed masterpiece', one's expectations may not be great. (One mistake was to think that there was a clear connection with Blondie's 'Union City Blue'*.)

Undeservedly so, because, with its modest resources (sufficient, though, to the task), this is a very strong film about what makes someone snap, fear and try to flee, and about the relationships that tie. The mood of the film is created by the work of two men in particular, the intensity of Dennis Lipscomb as Harlan, and by Harry's husband Chris Stein's atmospheric score, which has one's nerve-endings a-tingle, especially in the long sequence at the centre of what happens.

The film credits the estate of Cornell Woolrich, a writer of stories, but it surely transcends the original material, with the variety, yet claustrophobia, of the decor, the touches, not just in the nightmarish moments, of the bizarre, and of the dreamy insubstantiality of the world, which does not so much run away from Harlan as slip through his fingers, often with caricatures of bystanders or watchers : they feel as if they are infused by German expressionism, and, even if they may be types, they are all individual.

Ultimately, having scraped around trying not to acknowledge it, we are brought up against the sordidness of everything, and Lillian (Harry) has to admit, with a crash, that her dreams of another world with Larry, the amorous caretaker played by Everett McGill, are no more than that in the face of it.
To summarize this, the synopsis that IMDb has used seems highly inept, and is best ignored by those easily put off something worthwhile by a fatuous description : A man is so obsessed with finding the person responsible for stealing his milk bottles** that he ignores his beautiful young wife, who has other ideas on her mind.

The feature runs to 82 minutes, but the tragedy is not only that it was cut down to gain [the equivalent of***] a PG certificate, but that that material has been lost forever. What remains are Harry's screen-tests (where she is far more she than in the film, where her general quietness makes the times when she erupts or is defiant far more intense, although, absolutely, nothing reaches the heights of Harlan and his fantasy), and some mute takes, whereas what has gone was necessarily of a more forceful nature.

The ambiguity of Harlan and Lillian's 'marriage', which is suggested to be one of convenience, and the playful way in which Larry, her regular film partner, has coffee with her all work very well, and a strict Freudian could probably quite happily point to Harlan as neurotic and emasculated, even if the film works on many other levels, and deserves attention for its power, despite the lost possibility of restoring the original edit.

End notes

* There is a connection, in that (as writer / director Marcus Reichert's sleeve-notes make me aware) Blondie's 'Heart of Glass' went to number one halfway through shooting, and Harry wrote the other song as an account of performing the role of Lillian Harman : Reichert says that she was forbidden by contract from singing on the soundtrack, but that the song was a superb gift to the film.

** No one is stealing the bottles - it is the contents !

*** I forget how long they've been around.

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