Friday, February 08, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Chicago Calling (1951)

CHICAGO CALLING (1951) is a tough little movie about an alcoholic man whose life pretty much bottoms out in the space of a couple of days. It features a bravura performance by Dan Duryea and an atmospheric tour of Los Angeles, but it's not an especially easy film to watch.

Bill Cannon (Duryea) lives in the rundown Bunker Hill section of L.A. with his wife Mary (Mary Anderson) and little girl Nancy (Melinda Plowman). Mary loves Bill but has had enough of his drinking and consequent inability to hold down a job. Mary rents a car ride to take Nancy back to family in the East, telling Bill she'll return if he can get himself together.

Bill goes on a bender and arrives home to find a telephone repair main about to disconnect his phone -- and a telegram under the door from Mary saying that Nancy has been seriously injured in a car accident in Chicago; Mary's wire says she will call Bill the next morning after Nancy has surgery.

Bill owes $53 on his phone bill and needs to find a way to get the money so he can receive Mary's call. Along the way he connects with a lonely little boy, Bobby (Gordon Gebert), and a variety of characters ranging from nasty to indifferent to touchingly helpful.

This is a dark movie, in which Duryea's life just keeps spiraling downward, so that the final hit he takes is just much too much; there's a moving ray of hope at the end, but not in the way a viewer might expect. Duryea's character is a lost man who was a successful aerial gunner in WWII and a good photography student, with a lovely wife and sweet little girl, but his life is off the rails. He has every reason to change but, being an alcoholic, he can't quite make it happen.

The remarkable thing about Duryea's performance is that despite the fact that he plays a very flawed character, he retains deep audience sympathy. Another actor might have simply exasperated viewers, but Duryea's performance expresses not just Bill's issues, but also his basic decency. As Frank Young writes at Noir of the Week, "Any actor but Dan Duryea wouldn’t have worked in the role of Bill Cannon"; he also calls the film "among the most despairing, relentless entries in the film noir cycle."

Aside from Duryea's performance, the other most interesting aspect of the film is the Los Angeles setting. I couldn't help thinking that the Bunker Hill apartment house could never hope to pass building codes today; the rickety staircase is a nightmare waiting to happen, as a child could slip right under the railing, with fatal consequences.

Duryea walks around different areas of Downtown Los Angeles and also takes Bobby to a Hollywood Stars game at Wrigley Field. The stark black and white photography was by Robert de Grasse; the production design was by future Oscar winner Boris Leven (WEST SIDE STORY, THE SOUND OF MUSIC).

Bobby was played by Gordon Gebert, who costarred in a number of good films including HOLIDAY AFFAIR (1949), SADDLE TRAMP (1950), and THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL (1951). He graduated from MIT with a degree in architecture, eventually becoming a professor at the New York City College Spitzer School of Architecture, where he continues to teach today.

Mary Anderson, who plays Duryea's wife, had a small but notable role in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), playing Maybelle Merriwether. Her best-known films included LIFEBOAT (1944), WILSON (1944), and TO EACH HIS OWN (1946). Anderson, the sister of actor James Anderson, married the great cinematographer Leon Shamroy in 1953. If IMDb is accurate, she will be 93 in a few weeks.

Former child actress Marcia Mae Jones, billed as Marsha Jones, plays a sympathetic lunch truck waitress. The cast also includes Ross Elliott, Roy Engel, Judy Brubaker, Dick Curtis, and Roy Glenn.

CHICAGO CALLING was directed by John Reinhardt,who cowrote the screenplay with Peter Berneis.  The film runs 75 minutes.

The Warner Archive print is generally quite good, although there were a few scenes where I was aware of light speckles or a faint thread running down the screen. I watched this disc via ClassicFlix.

I'm not sure I could precisely recommend this bleak film, yet I find that both Duryea and the black and white images of Los Angeles are lingering in my mind. If you see this movie, you aren't likely to forget it.

2015 Update: I had a great experience seeing this film at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, California; child actor Gordon Gebert shared his memories of working with Dan Duryea.


Blogger Vienna said...

Thanks for highlighting this interesting movie. I agree Dan Duryea was so good in it , surely one of his best ever roles.

12:24 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Sounds fascinating. Duryea is an especially intriguing actor. Always love to see him pop up in a film.

4:58 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I've heard of this (Dave Kehr wrote up director Reinhardt in Film Comment last year and talked about it) and really want to see it. It jumps out even from descriptions that Duryea has a tremendous role--no matter how much we all love his many villains, it's very important to remember that those were considered his niche and kind of made his career but he had tremendous range and could do beautifully in a sympathetic part like this one. Your piece reminded me about this and I will make a point to see it, maybe just get it when Warner Archive has one of their better offers going.

It seems like any black-and-white movie from the late 40s/early 50s that has some bleakness or sadness will be called a "film noir" by someone, to the point that designation is almost meaningless now so much of the time. I really think it's become more of a marketing tool than anything else and it's just gotten so boring.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Glad you were able to see it, Vienna. I think you'd find it quite interesting, Jacqueline. We all need to start a Duryea fan club!

Blake, this movie is a great title to examine for a "What is noir?" discussion. It actually has a sequence involving a crime, cops are called, etc., which tilts it a little more noirish. And the look is very noir, such as a shot at night when Duryea walks toward the camera with the neon signs of L.A. behind him, plus the stark B&W photography of the L.A. of that era visually ties in with so many other noir titles, including Duryea's CRISS CROSS.

But while financial pressures lead Duryea astray, like so many other noir characters, in the end it's probably more of a tragedy/attempt at redemption story than a true film noir.

Best wishes,

3:36 PM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Like Blake I too am getting a little fed up with what constitutes a Noir and what doesn't. I just call them thrillers !
Blake may have nailed it - a marketing tool. Add the word Noir and it may sell a few more copies.

1:26 AM  
Blogger redcon1 said...

Happy you were able to view this and enjoyed your review which is spot on, although I would probably be more inclined to recommend it .

I have a thing for actors who usually play villians and wanting to watch them in more sympathetic, if not necessarily heroic roles. Duryea in this, Ride Clear of Diablo and a few others fits the bill as does someone like Steve Cochran in Tomorrow Is Another Day (which I highly recommened and is more truly a Noir).

Anyway, I'm enjoying your blog immensely and the diverse choice of films you review.

One last question....Warner Archive has recently released a film called Love On A Bet, a 30's comedy. Have you seen it? I watched the clip on their website and it looks like one worth viewing.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Redcon1, I appreciate you having mentioned CHICAGO CALLING in a comment to my recent Duryea tribute post, that was part of the impetus for me to see it! Although it's not something I'd be in a hurry to see again because of the tough subject matter, I'm glad I checked it out.

Thank you so much for the kind words, I'm truly delighted to know you are enjoying your visits to my blog. It's wonderful to be able to "talk movies" with others who love them. It's a lot of fun skipping around from Westerns to film noir to musicals to "B" films to WWII to romantic comedies to...

LOVE ON A BET caught my eye, too! I've not seen it, but I noticed it has a fairly high rating from IMDb viewers, 7.0 (44 viewers rated it at last count). I find that RKO movies of the '30s are generally worth checking out, and I especially love a film Gene Raymond made the very same year, WALKING ON AIR (1936), with Ann Sothern. I'd buy that one in a flash.

With Helen Broderick in the cast, LOVE ON A BET looks like a "buy" for me at some future date. If you see it before I review it, I'd love to know your opinion.

Best wishes,

4:46 PM  

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