"Nobody puts their ugly lips around my bottle of milk and gets away with it!"
This Fox Lorber release from Director Mark Richert is moody and dark, and presents an intriguing study in misplaced priorities, obsession, and paranoia.
Facts of the Case
The year is 1953. Harlan (Dennis Lipscomb—Wargames, Undercover Blues, Under Siege) is an accountant and a short-tempered, mean-spirited little bully of a man. He makes life miserable for his lovely but downtrodden wife Lillian (Deborah Harry—Copland, lead singer of Blondie). They live in a modest apartment in a lower middle class suburb of New York.
Harlan is obsessed with finding the thief who has been stealing sips of milk from his morning delivery. He spends all of his waking hours hatching schemes to catch the thief red-handed. In the process he ignores his wife, leaving her to feel alone and rejected. Lillian turns to Larry (Everett McGill—The Straight Story, Licence to Kill, My Fellow Americans), the building supervisor, for comfort and eventually they hatch a plan to run away together.
One morning Harlan manages to catch the thief. Their confrontation escalates into an act of senseless violence. Harlan does what he can to conceal the evidence, but he is certain he will be found out eventually. His guilt and paranoia over what he has done drive the movie to a jarring conclusion.
Union City operates successfully on two levels. First, it is an intriguing retelling of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Telltale Heart" as film noir. The film captures Harlan in progressive stages of paranoia and irrationality over what he has done to the milk thief. Dennis Lipscomb's performance, while stilted and melodramatic at times, is effective at communicating Harlan's despair. It is a performance somehow reminiscent of Peter Lorre, but with a mean streak.
There is also a strong subtext in the film that deals with our priorities as individuals and as a society. Harlan's obsession with the milk leads him to ignore Lillian, leaving her lonely and unfulfilled. Their situation serves as a strong critique of modern materialism, but on a deeper level it serves as a cautionary tale about neglecting the friends and family around us in favor of our trivial pursuits. It is ironic that Harlan cares more about a thief stealing a few sips of milk than he does about Larry's involvement with his wife.
The tone of the movie calls for stylized acting performances that are a few steps removed from realism. Everyone except Lipscomb is very understated, almost wooden. This seems intentional to me, as though to underscore the contrast between Harlan and the world around him. This was Deborah Harry's film debut, and she does a passable job as Lillian, conveying a sense of resignation, despair, and unexpressed frustration.
Union City is visually interesting as well, with strong doses of bright primary colors adorning the sets. The color scheme is used to deliberate effect, conveying a mood for every scene. The colors and moods combine with the actors' performances and haunting musical cues to create a slightly surreal atmosphere.
Extra content consists of production credits, filmographies, and a behind the scenes photo gallery. The production notes and filmographies are pretty standard, but the photo gallery is a nice touch, and includes some scenes that were cut from the final film.
One minor point of interest is the appearance of Pat Benatar in a small role near the end of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Union City comes to us in a 1.33:1 presentation. Details over at the IMDb are sketchy, so I could not determine whether or not this was the original aspect ratio, but I tend to doubt it. There are a few instances where the picture seems to shift a little too quickly to be a normal camera pan.
Fox Lorber has once again produced a poor quality DVD of a promising movie. It is impossible to list all of the picture defects. The picture is grainy throughout and lacks depth. Major artifacts can be seen in almost every frame. Light sources shimmer and sparkle like fireworks. Overall the picture is very dark and murky, although some of that is due to deliberate choices in cinematography. The film itself is full of nicks and scratches. Colors tend to be washed out, except for reds, which are generally oversaturated and garish. Both reds and blacks tend to bleed. The picture shakes and jumps frequently. In short it looks terrible, even if it is a 20-year-old low-budget picture; this disc could be used as an encyclopedia of video defects.
The audio is presented in Dolby 2.0. It is muffled on occasion, and there is a strong hiss in the background at all times.
Union City starts out deceptively simple and gets progressively more intriguing, especially after multiple viewings. I'm still not sure if I like it, and I don't know if I would recommend it, but it is a though-provoking film with a surrealistic edge to it.
Fox Lorber takes a lot of well-deserved abuse around here. I will say one thing in their defense: they bring a lot of films to DVD that no one else would touch. Sure, they give us astoundingly bad picture and sound. However, they do allow us to be exposed to unconventional films that we might not get the chance to see otherwise, and in doing so they provide us all with a valuable service.
The movie is acquitted. Fox Lorber is once again convicted, but they will get some time off for bringing movies to DVD that we probably would not see but for their efforts.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Fox Lorber
• Production Credits
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