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Black Milk

UNION CITY Directed and Written by Mark Reichert

TIME – 20th October 1980


Harlan (Dennis Lipscomb) thinks he’s Bogie: swatting his cigarette lighter open, swigging Seagram’s from a pint bottle, talking tough to the little lady. He’s not. He’s a middle-aged shlemiel of an accountant—a surly, sulky Bob Newhart—with a restless young wife and a fatal case of paranoia. Lillian (Deborah Harry) thinks she’s Betty Bacall: purple nightgowns, lots of makeup and suggestive patter, gentleman friend on the side. She’s not. She’s a housewife who cannot keep house, and whose only escape from her drab apartment is a weekly movie matinee with the superintendent (Everett McGill). O.K., her Mongol cheekbones do suggest a touch of fashion-model class. True, the young super does look as if he placed second in a Jack Palance look-alike contest. But it is still 1953, and this is Union City, N.J. From the wrong side of the Hudson River, the lights of New York can seem a million miles away.

Union City, made for $500,000 by Mark Reichert, 32, has been called the first punk-rock film noir. At first glance, the phrase fits. Deborah Harry, making her dramatic-film debut, is the blond of Blondie; Chris Stein, who composed the sepulchrally melodious score, is Blondie’s lead guitarist; Pat Benatar, in a featured role, has an album of her own. And Union City is faithful to the tones and undertones of film noir, that postwar style of moviemaking that transposed Raymond Chandler’s mean-streets prose and James M. Cain’s haunted losers to celluloid. Electric blue and neon orange infiltrate the Venetian blinds as Harlan, obsessed with finding the person who has been drinking from the milk bottles outside his door, strikes the culprit with a blow hard enough to kill and then hides the body in the apartment next door. The film’s moral is as curt and curdled as any in old film noir: Don’t die over spilled milk.

But Union City has other things on its mind. For a start, this is a film noir in garish, ominous primary colors; the design takes its cue from the camp surrealism of modern Germanic directors like Daniel Schmid and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. More important, however funny-peculiar the plot, Union City tracks its characters’ shabby lives and squalid passions so relentlessly that it becomes a portrait of lower-middle-class despair. And Lipscomb’s performance is devastatingly acute. His gestures are just too broad, his harsh voice much too loud; Harlan’s swagger and insecurity go hand in white-knuckled hand. Lipscomb throws himself into Harlan’s impotent pettiness with a vigor that is sometimes hard to watch. It may alienate viewers who have slipped into the theater in search of a Deborah Harry concert and instead found a tongue-in-chic study of a man very much like their least favorite neighbor. Other moviegoers, who may not know Blondie from Dagwood, are advised to take the leap onto the hard rocks of New Jersey funk. —By Richard Corliss


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