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Chicago Calling

Posted by martinteller on June 15, 2013

Bill Cannon (Dan Duryea) was once a promising photographer.  But he squandered his career with his boozing and his attraction to get-rich-quick schemes.  He’s struggling to control his alcoholism, but after another binge, his wife Mary (Mary Anderson) is fed up with his excuses for falling off the wagon and packs up for Baltimore, taking their daughter Nancy (Melinda Plowman) with her.  Then Bill gets a telegram: Nancy has been injured in an accident outside Chicago, and Mary will call the next morning with details.  The problem is, Bill’s phone is cut off because he hadn’t paid the bill.  Now he has one day to scrape together the $53 he needs to turn the phone back on.  His desperate quest involves random acts of kindness — and callousness — from strangers, including an ally in the form of a little boy named Bobby (Gordon Gebert).

Last November, I added John Reinhardt’s twisty murder drama The Guilty to my top 100 noirs.  This film is actually even better, but won’t be making the list.  Everyone has their own definition of noir.  Mine is fairly loose.  It doesn’t have to have chiaroscuro lighting or even be in black and white, it doesn’t have to have a femme fatale, it doesn’t have to have snappy dialogue, and it certainly doesn’t have to have a detective.  Various combinations of those things make a film more noir-ish, but they’re not requirements.  But there should be, in my opinion, either a focus on crime or on intense moral dilemmas.  Though those things are touched on here, they’re touched too lightly for it to feel especially noir to me.  It’s more in the realm of neorealism.  Bill’s journey is not unlike Antonio’s in Bicycle Thieves.

Noir or not, however, it is a mighty fine drama.  And you can give most of the credit to the wonderful Mr. Duryea.  This might be the finest performance I’ve seen from him, and my opinion of him as an actor has come a very long way from the disdain I felt for him early on.  He makes Bill such a deeply relatable character, full of pathos, easily evoking an audience’s sympathy.  He’s a good man who has made some bad decisions in life.  When we see him make one in the film, our hearts cry out for him to correct it.  At his lowest point, we beg for him not to give up.  Duryea shows a marvelous range here, and he brings the same world-weary desperation that made The Guilty sing so well.  Gebert — who would also give child performances in The Narrow Margin and House on Telegraph Hill — is a bit precocious, but far from the worst I’ve seen.

The photography is neorealist in its style as well, highlighting the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles.  Its long, steep staircases make fantastic metaphors for Bill’s struggles.  There’s some fine location work, showing a down-to-earth L.A. that seems miles away from the glitz of Hollywood (there are a couple of really atrocious process shots, however).

At a tight 75 minutes, the film packs a lot of soul into its running time.  It may seem to get off to a slow start, but the time is necessary to develop Bill’s devoted attachment to his loved ones.  It’s a complex and sometimes surprising drama that shows the best and the worst of humanity.  Very moving and a must-see for Duryea fans.  Rating: Very Good (86)


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