review by Frank M. Young
Bill Cannon (embodied—not played—by Dan Duryea) is a sad sack of buffalo chips—even by film noir standards. His relatable plight makes Chicago Calling (1953) something more than your standard noir.
The film is, arguably, not a bona fide film noir. Its main goal is to emulate the neo-realist movement of post-war Italian cinema. Director/co-writer John Reinhardt has no interest in crafting a routine tale of crime and punishment. Everything that happens in Chicago Calling could reasonably occur in your life or mine—were the chips to fall as miserably as they do for the feckless Cannon.
A struggling alcoholic, Cannon is a once-gifted photographer whose boozing and lack of self-confidence have sent him on a long, slow slide to oblivion. He lives in a shabby Bunker Hill apartment with his long-suffering wife, Mary (Mary Cannon) and their daughter Nancy (Melinda Plowman).
The film starts at the end of a personal tether. Mary has had enough of her husband’s excuses, weakness and lack of resolve. She is leaving him, with Nancy in tow, and going cross-country to her mother’s. Bill is blind-sided by this decision, and tries vaguely to keep wife and child from going. Mary has heard these feeble promises of reform twice too often. There’s no changing her mind. She still loves Bill, but he’s beyond her personal pale.
Bill is in a haze—he’s clearly reached rock bottom with this terrible turn of events. His fight to win back his family, while buried alive under the rubble of his bad decisions, is among the bravest struggles ever to face a film noir anti-hero.
Any actor but Dan Duryea wouldn’t have worked in the role of Bill Cannon. No other actor could so perfectly convey desperation, flop-sweat and lack of personal resolve. His ability to personify the sad sack persona of Bill Cannon, to the nth degree, is the solvency of Chicago Calling.
Duryea’s Bill Cannon lacks basic survival skills in a hard urban world. The constant movement of the city bewilders him. He isn’t a villain, he isn’t a saint—he just is. This is the finest moment of his film career—the spotlight is exclusively on him, and he pushes past easy gestures and stock reactions to forge a performance that lingers in the viewer’s mind, long after the film has ended.
As I viewed this film, I kept thinking of his character in the 1941 Warner Brothers A-pic, The Little Foxes. His spineless, shifty Leo Hubbard seems the spiritual forefather to Bill Cannon. We’re given only fleeting glimpses of Bill’s past. It appears that he was once a whiz-kid—perhaps one who coasted too long on his promise, rather than on physical achievements.
That cockiness is long gone from Cannon’s arsenal by the time we meet him. He can’t find a job—let alone keep one—and is a nuisance even to his friends. His only ally is his dog, left behind by wife and child.
Bill numbly walks the streets of Bunker Hill. Like other independent L.A. film noir productions (Joseph Losey’s M, et al), Chicago Calling makes the most of location shooting in the seediest sectors of the City of Angels. These long-demolished low-income neighborhoods live on via these films.
Bill uses an icon of Bunker Hill in his daily travels—a long, steep flight of cement stairs. These are to film noir what the stairway in Laurel and Hardy’s short, The Music Box, are to classic comedy. Each flight is a symbol of man’s struggle: one used to inspire comedy, the other to convey tragedy.
Those long, steep stairs, which memorably serve in a fight scene in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me, Deadly, have removed plenty of Bill’s shoe leather over the years. He and the dog aimlessly wander the downtrodden streets of Los Angeles, in search of some answer to his confused, half-formed plea of mercy.
Chicago Calling turns decidedly noir in these haunting moments. What might have been a straight-laced Hollywood account of a loser turning his life around becomes a drifting, episodic tone poem of poverty and despair.
Bill Cannon does redeem himself, in his own hapless way. He must grovel to achieve this faint salvation. He gets news that his daughter has been seriously injured, in transit. Her life hangs in the balance at a Chicago hospital. News is imminent via his home telephone. Said phone is on the disconnect list, due to non-payment of a large bill.
Cannon’s personal crisis is a dusk-to-dawn struggle to raise the money to pay the damned bill so he can receive that phone call. He opens himself up to anyone and anything that can help him.
In the course of this dark night of the soul, he meets Bobby (Gordon Gebert), one of those 1950s movie kids who seem wise beyond their years. Bobby innocently indicts Bill in a minor-league crime, in an attempt to help him.
Despite this disaster, Bill and Bobby bond. Bill is no hero, but he recognizes a fellow outcast. By reaching out to Bobby, Bill is given a form of hope, as the events of his life grow increasingly bleaker.
Chicago Calling has ambitions to transcend genre and budget boundaries. Thank heavens it was an independent project. Had this film been made by, say, MGM’s B-movie unit, heavy moralizing and an “uplifting” message would have gelded it completely. Director Reinhardt, as said, seems clearly inspired by the gritty efforts of Vittorio de Sica and Luchino Visconti. Echoes of Bicycle Thieves(1946) and Open City (1945) permeate this film.
Bill Cannon suffers in a way that most noir figures don’t. His problems and personal pain are achingly real. He goes through hell for the wont of 53 dollars, According to the inflation calculator at dollartimes.com, that’s the equivalent of $435.07 in 2011 dollars. To anyone in need, then or now, that’s a hefty chunk of change.
Bill can’t solve his problems with a .45 and a quick wit. He is left to face his worst fears, at ground level.
Director of photography Robert de Grasse is the tacit co-star of Chicago Calling. His unflinching vistas of the downside of L.A. life are moving and atmospheric. Particularly choice are the film’s nighttime sequences. They capture the groggy crawl of a city that can’t afford to sleep, no matter how weary it may be.
Despite its half-hearted happy ending—which doesn’t convince us for a moment, given Cannon’s past track record—Chicago Calling is among the most despairing, relentless entries in the film noir cycle. Because it lacks fedoras, femmes fatale and gleaming gats, this film has been overlooked and under-estimated.
Thanks to the recent Warner Archive DVD-R, Reinhardt’s bleak view of a life hanging by a thread can reach across six decades and remind us how little life—and human nature—has changed.