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.