1980’s neo-noir tale of paranoia “Union City” starred Debbie Harry in her dramatic film debut

By on August 28, 2017

Night Flight’s “Take Off to Rock and Cult Films” — which originally aired on March 25, 1985, now streaming over on Night Flight Plus — featured a peek at 1980’s Union City, starring Debbie Harry and directed by Marcus Reichert, who based this disturbing neo-noir tale of mounting paranoia on a short story by Cornell Woolrich.

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Night Flight’s Pat Prescott tells us: Union City — a tale of murder and paranoia — stars Debbie Harry in her dramatic film debut as the wife of a neurotic businessman. The film is set in the claustrophobic urban environment of New Jersey, seen through the eyes of a new wave sensibility.”

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New York filmmaker Reichert based his screenplay on “The Corpse Next Door,” written by Cornell Woolrich, who authored numerous short stories and novels that were made into major motion pictures (his “It Had To Be Murder” was the source for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window).

The story — mirroring the paranoid narrative found in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 classic “The Tell-Tale Heart” — was first published in Detective Fiction Weekly on January 23, 1937.

Reichert moved Woolrich’s story’s setting to March of 1953, placing it in the gritty industrial setting of Union City, NJ, across the Hudson River from Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen.

Read more about Union City below.

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Union City follows the tumultuous relationship between a mentally-unstable accountant, Harlan (Dennis Lipscomb), and his timid wife, Lillian, played by Deborah Harry in her first dramatic film role.

Harlan is restless and miserable in both his job and his marriage to Lillian, who ends up finding love in the arms of Larry Longacre (Everett McGill), the caretaker of their apartment block, with whom she begins a sweet love affair.

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Things go a little haywire when Harlan begins to obsess over the fact that someone is stealing sips from a milk bottle delivered to his doorstep every morning.

Lillian believes it’s their neighbor the Countess (Irina Maleeva) who is stealing the milk in order to feed her cats.

Harlan sets a clever trap to nab the culprit, which leads to him killing the milk thief — a homeless war vet (Sam McMurray) — and he then spirals deeper into paranoia as he tries to hide the body in a folding Murphy Bed in a vacant apartment next door.

Harlan continues exhibiting bizarre behavior, becoming increasingly paranoid that he will be identified as a killer, especially after the apartment is made available to rent.

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The rights to Woolrich’s story were purchased by producer Monty Montgomery, one of the producers on David Lynch’s original Twin Peaks,” as well as the Lynch-directed film Wild at Heart.

Montgomery — also one of the founding forces of the independent production company Propaganda Films — would only direct one feature himself, 1982’s The Loveless, an early vehicle for actor Willem Dafoe (actually, he co-directed it with Kathryn Bigelow, the script supervisor on Union City).

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Marcus Reichert, Dennis Lipscomb, and Everett McGill on the set of Union City (1980)

Reichert began writing the screenplay in November of 1978, and production on the low-budget production ($500,000) began in March of 1979, filmed on 27th Street off Summit Avenue, and on 48th Street and Hudson Ave, in Union City, NJ.

It was Reichert’s Director of Photography Edward Lachman — who worked with filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Wim Wenders, and Werner Herzog — who actually meet Debbie Harry at a party.

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Harry told the cinematographer that she was looking to do more serious movie roles, but didn’t want to appear in a film focused or based on music, as she was trying to establish herself as a serious actress (she was regularly turning down parts in which she was asked to be a singer).

Reichert loved that Harry was so unpretentious and interested in playing a role that didn’t focus on her stunning looks (she wears a brown wig, close to her own original hair color, in the film).

Even though everyone at the time called her Debbie, Reichert didn’t want a “Debbie” in his film, which is why she was billed “Deborah Harry” (thereafter it became a regular thing to refer to the Blondie singer as Deborah).

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Reichert was primarily focused on creating an all-pervading neo-noirish sense of pent-up lust and sexual frustration, and oversaw the film’s visual look, in particular its use of vibrant color (virtually every interior set has one dominant primary: color, red, blue or green).

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Everett McGill, by the way, continued working with David Lynch on Dune (1984), and many fans will recognize him as “Big Ed” Hurley from “Twin Peaks” (1990-91) and the currently-airing Showtime series too (2017).

Union City also featured a wonderful cast of actors adding cult appeal (Taylor Mead, CCH Pounder and rock singer Pat Benatar), and Blondie’s Chris Stein provided the soundtrack score.

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Reichert’s Union City ended up being selected for the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 1980, where it was praised as one of the first “neo-noir” films, and even though it was mostly acclaimed by critics — Lawrence O’Toole, film critic for Time Magazine, called it “an unqualified masterpiece” — film distributors were disappointed that Debbie Harry didn’t look like the blonde bombshell from Blondie, whose “Heart of Glass” hit #1 in the U.S. midway through the film’s production.

Union City did not open in theaters in the U.S. and Canada until September 1980, and then quickly disappeared.

Today it is considered a neo-noir classic. It was the centerpiece of a neo-noir film festival in 1997 by the American Museum of the Moving Image, and is now in the Film Archive of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Watch Night Flight’s 1985 episode of “Take Off to Rock and Cult Films” — also featuring segments on Rude Boy, Breaking Glass, Smithereens, and Ladies & Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains — which is streaming on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.