Thursday, November 12, 2015


Chicago Calling isn’t on anyone’s list of masterpieces but more than 60 years after it was first released it’s still a marvel of simplicity.

It first arrived during the late months of 1951 alongside such sexed-up blockbusters as A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun. How could such a plain little story survive in such bloated, "important" company?  A simple tale of a man trying to raise $53.00 to have his phone service reinstalled, it was usually programmed on the bottom end of double features, typically with a war movie above it. By 1957, it was already on television, sandwiched in between daytime soaps and quiz shows. Maybe bored housewives watched it while ironing their husband’s shirts. I’ll bet they loved it, and talked about it during dinner.

The movie, reissued on DVD in recent years as part of the Warner Brothers Archive Collection, was co-written and directed by John Reinhardt, a filmmaker from Vienna who had a reasonably successful career in America, usually as a maker of crime films. Chicago Calling is sometimes described as noir, but such a distinction actually diminishes it. It’s a drama, with heart, the sort of movie that feels at first like a soggy melodrama from long ago only to suddenly bushwhack you with the seriousness of its subject.  

The story is elemental. It stars Dan Duryea, an actor known for playing crooks, as Bill Cannon, a man whose wife is leaving him. Bill’s a drinker. He’s not a bad man, but he’s irresponsible. HIs wife (Mary Anderson) has given him an ultimatum: she’s leaving, and will only come back if he straightens himself out. The scenes where she packs her bags and heads out to the train station are heartbreaking.  She’s hocked a brooch he’d given her in order to pay for her trip. When Bill learns this, he goes to the pawn shop and gets the brooch back. He’ll pay for her train ticket, even though he’s broke. He doesn’t want to say goodbye to his daughter (Melinda Plowman), a scrappy little kid who defends her daddy's honor in playground fights, so he spends the night at a friend’s house. Still, when his wife and daughter leave the next morning, Bill is hiding behind a bush near their home, as if he’d wanted one last look at them.

The next time we see Bill, he’s sleeping off a hangover on a buddy’s couch. He can’t change his ways. Not right away. When he returns home, he finds a man from the phone company removing his phone. Bill’s body language seems to say ‘Take everything. I don’t give a shit.’ As Bill goes through the mail that has piled up in his absence, he finds a scary telegram from his wife in Chicago. His daughter was in a car accident and is waiting for an operation. There will be a call the next morning to let him know how things have turned out.

Bill, of course, panics. He has no phone.  He spends the rest of the day roaming his Los Angeles neighborhood, trying to find enough money to have his phone service turned on.  His friends won’t help him, because he already owes them money. The bank won’t help. The phone company won’t help. The clerks he encounters are unbearably smarmy, as if they can't believe he's allowed himself to fall this far. One fellow literally laughs as Bill tries to explain his problem. A television producer overhears Bill telling his sorrows to a waitress, and offers Bill a chance to go on TV to present his story to the public. Bill turns the offer down. His dignity won’t allow him to make a spectacle of himself. 

Later, he befriends a young boy (Gordon Gebert) who steals some money to help. This would solve Bill’s dilemma, but his integrity rears up again. He tells the boy to return the money. By then, the police are after Bill because the boy’s family knows the money was stolen and assume Bill was involved. Still desperate to raise the money on his own, Bill takes a night job at a construction site, enduring the mockery of the other workers because he can’t handle the jackhammer. But his drive amuses the foreman, who pays him for a shift and wishes him well. He returns to his home and learns that a phone serviceman has given him a break. The phone is back on temporarily, just long enough for Bill to get the call. But Bill’s good fortune is disrupted when the cops arrive. As Bill is being handcuffed, the phone begins to ring. He begs the police to let him answer. I found myself feeling for this poor guy. And things only get worse for him.

The story is so direct and poignant that it almost plays like postwar Italian neorealism, with Duryea wandering the streets in frustration, first with his little dog at his side, and later with the boy. By 1951, films like The Bicycle Thief had obviously been digested by filmmakers, and Chicago Calling, I think, is an example of someone taking De Sica’s earthy fable and using its style in America.  But Americans weren’t especially taken by such stark realism. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, one of the few newspapers to actually review the film, walloped Chicago Calling, calling it “an erratic story that sounds like one of the more hopelessly irresponsible case histories lifted anonymously out of the files of a family welfare agency.” 

True, Duryea plays the kind of helpless schnook who was probably anathema to the times, but there’s so much warmth to him, especially in the scenes with his daughter and the boy, that I can’t imagine people not rooting for him. 

In the recent Time Out of Mind, Richard Gere plays a man not unlike Bill Cannon, a basically good guy who has made some bad choices in life and is now forced to negotiate with a society that wants nothing to do with him. Such films seem to play better with the passing of time. When people forget that Gere was known for playing studs and sharpies, his portrayal in Time Out of Mind will be even more impressive. Duryea had some stereotypes to deal with, too. He was known to moviegoers as the actor you hired to treat women roughly, or to shoot someone in the back. Critic Manny Farber of The New Republic once dismissed Duryea as “a self-conscious, over-emphatic villain.” What did moviegoers think in 1951 when the usually malevolent Duryea was cast as Bill Cannon, the well-meaning guy who simply wanted to pay his phone bill? Reinhardt had seen something in Duryea, a weariness, a sadness, and thought he was the man for the part. Imagine Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster in the role. They’d eat the scenery. Duryea gets it just right.

At the time, Reinhardt was bouncing between low budget American features,  productions for the foreign language markets, and a stint directing six episodes of TV’s Fireside Theater. He never had a huge hit, and tended to work under the Hollywood radar. He’s what would now be called an “independent.” Chicago Calling was his last work in America. He made two more films in Germany, and died in 1953 at age 52.  He had some great help for Chicago Calling. The musical score was by Heinz Roemheld, an Oscar winner whose career dated back to silent era. The cinematography was by Oscar nominated veteran Robert De Grasse, who photographed many crime and horror films during the 1930s and ‘40s. De Grasse adds an eeriness to Bill’s late night walks through the city; the dump site where he briefly works looks like a lunar strip, the workers milling about like phantoms. Best of all, the location shooting at LA’s old Bunker Hill neighborhood gives the movie the feel of an alfresco tragedy, as Duryea stalks through dark alleys and crummy apartment buildings; the environment reflects a man whose possibilities are running out.

As for Duryea, he once said that Chicago Calling was his favorite among his films, partly because it had made his wife cry. He took no money for the role, working for a percentage of the profits. Unfortunately, there were none. He was soon back to playing heels, but in 1957 he starred in an excellent vehicle for himself, The Burglar, where he played an aging crook trying to make one last score. It was a great role, and he nailed it, but like Chicago Calling, it went by unnoticed. There followed some steady TV work, and a gradual fade into spaghetti westerns and low-grade sci-fi. He died in 1968 at age 61. Duryea's final role was in The Bamboo Saucer, about a downed spacecraft found in China, co-produced by the same group that brought us Gamara The Invincible and Blood Beast From Outer Space. It was a weird way to end a career, but we all come to a weird end, don't we?

"My reputation as an actor is a good one,” Duryea once said. “But I've no illusions about being the world's greatest.” 

In Chicago Calling, he’s very close to greatness.


For a fun Dan Duryea fan site, try
Lots of great pics and a nice video tribute....

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