I don’t usually blog on other blogs, so to speak, but I’m making an exception for this essay on the film Chicago Calling.
The film was originally brought to my attention by an article in the May/June issue of Film Comment by Dave Kehr; the director in question is John Reinhardt, who had a scattershot career to say the least, and I saw his film The Guilty a few weeks back, a sort of rundown version of Robert Siomak’s The Dark Mirror, and thought that despite the fact that it was unremittingly grim and depressing, it really didn’t have much to recommend it.
Chicago Calling is a different matter altogether; as Frank M. Young notes in his excellent essay on the Noir of the Week website, the film owes a considerable debt to the down-in-the-street neorealism of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, shot on the rundown streets of Los Angeles in 1951, with some minimal studio to round things out. Dan Duryea, a noir veteran to say the least, is perfectly cast in the role of William Cannon, once a promising photographer, but now a spectacular flameout, given to alcoholic binges and completely irresponsible behavior, and his wife Mary (Mary Anderson) is walking out on him at last, not in fury, but in resignation, because she simply doesn’t see the situation improving.
The family lives in a near hovel, on the absolute edge of starvation, and William has to pawn his camera to raise the cash so that Mary and their daughter Peggy (Marsha Jones) can pay $30 for a ride back to Chicago to stay with her mother until William cleans up his act, if he ever will. What happens after that forms the basis for one of the most harrowing, uncompromising, and original films of the early 1950s, a film that doesn’t flinch at showing what life was really like for the marginalized in the Eisenhower era — the dark side of the American dream.
As Young writes, “the film is, arguably, not a bona fide 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.” This is top shelf work from a generally unknown director who’s obviously out to make a personal statement, and in the process, gives Duryea the role of his career. A must see, now available from Warner Archives, and refreshingly, only 75 minutes long.