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Union City

cast: Dennis Lipscomb, Deborah Harry, Everett McGill, Irina Maleeva, and Pat Benatar

director: Marcus Reichert (credited as Mark Reichert)

87 minutes (12) 1980 widescreen ratio 16:9
Tartan DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Andrew Hook
Based on a Cornell Woolrich short story (The Corpse Next Door, 1937), Union City is a tour-de-force neo-noir movie caught on the cusp of late 1970s, early 1980s' cinema, standing as a fascinating examination of the breakdown of a man, Harlan (Dennis Lipscomb), on the edge of sanity, hemmed in by dubious morality and infectious frustrations, as events in his life spiral out of control.

Set in 1953, and named after the suburb on the less popular side of the Hudson River, most of the movie takes place on the fourth floor of a tenement block where the residents live in claustrophobic proximity. The effect is heightened by the close cinematography, particularly in the Harlan's apartment, where red lampshades emphasise the seediness of the surroundings and the tiny size of the rooms.

Lipscomb gives an utterly brilliant performance as a bitter man who desperately seeks meaning in his life, yet is tortured by inabilities to connect within personal relationships and has great difficulty in accepting emotion from those around him, even his attractive wife, Lillian (Deborah Harry). Indicative of a lost soul within the American dream, who has realised that he will never be a contender, Harlan's life further disintegrates when his obsession with catching a milk thief leads to uncharacteristic violence. Plagued by paranoia and guilt, he descends into a role not dissimilar to that of Raskolnikov (or Lady MacBeth) in a series of scenes that truly cut to the heart of him. Desperation, inability, and the fickle - yet unavoidable - hand of fate: these themes run through the movie and Lipscomb conveys them so convincingly that his distress is almost unbearably palpable.

Whilst Lipscomb battles with his demons in every scene, Deborah Harry is detached, indifferent, an intentional sense of boredom permeating her performance as Harlan's stay-at-home wife. Sexually frustrated - but never garishly so - her fantasies are expressed through movie matinees and flirtations with the building's caretaker, Larry (Everett McGill), and even when that slow, clandestine affair leads them to consider running away together, the effect is still almost passionless. The moments they share are next to empty, one-dimensional, but still better than what she has with Harlan.

The relationship between the Harlan's underpins the movie. Whilst they live together they embody a couple married for convenience, as though they picked each other's names out of a hat. One scene, where Harlan asks Lillian if she loves him is painfully poignant. Yet he cannot connect to her as a woman - he is impotent throughout the movie in more ways than one - and when she says that all she wants is a man to love her, he can only respond in a fractured voice: "Let me hold you like, like when you were a little girl."

The film excels in imagery, and whilst it leans firmly towards an art movie sensibility, it never feels exclusive. In addition, the musical score provided Harry's fellow Blondie band member, Chris Stein, perfectly suits the visuals and is never overbearing. Thankfully, director Marcus Reichert didn't seek to simply capitalise on Blondie's successes at the time to create a rock-infused movie that might have traded on Harry's looks. For her film debut she is brunette for most of the movie, and only towards the end does she dye her hair blonde, revealing her true colours just as the spare apartment in which Harlan has hidden the body reveals its own.

Occasionally Union City teeters into parody, with some of the dialogue B-movie clunky and stilted. However, it is rarely Lipscomb's dialogue that develops that way, which suggests a referential subtext to the film-noir homage, and reflects the dysfunctional syncopation that Harlan is surrounded by. McGill doesn't quite pull off the lothario caretaker image, and at times it feels that he isn't quite sure what he's doing, whilst Irina Maleeva's delightful performance as the dotty, young Countess adds perhaps too much peculiarity. Nevertheless, the amalgam of characters lends Union City an almost reverential feeling of realistic weirdness that culminates in the arrival of a newly married couple (the brilliant Tony Azito and Pat Benatar). Their good humour is completely at odds with that of the Harlan's, and makes us wonder whether they reflect what the Harlan's might have been - or indeed, once were. Quite excellent in its realisation, direction, and character development, Union City easily predates Lynch's Blue Velvet for brooding, oppressive paranoia, and is one hell of a must-watch movie from that period.

The transfer to DVD hasn't done it many favours, however, with the picture grainy and speckled with scratches throughout. In addition, the extras are also rather disappointing. There are a couple of Deborah Harry screen tests which, whilst passably interesting, add little to the movie or as a curiosity for her fan base, and a 'rare' deleted scene is barely worth including due to its length and lack of accompanying soundtrack. What would have been better would have been to add the extra three minutes of footage from the Canadian version of the movie, which includes Harry scrawling on a mirror with lipstick, and a still photo gallery. Instead, the only other extra is the original trailer and a couple of trailers for other Tartan releases. Until a more complete DVD selection arrives, however, this will most certainly do for now.

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