Chicago Calling (1951) isn't a noir, either. Not every sufficiently downbeat movie with an urban setting and evocative black-and-white cinematography is a film noir. Quite a number which fit this description are Italian neorealism. Like this one, except it's taking place in Los Angeles.
It's one of the movies whose plot is really its premise: broke and feckless ex-photographer Bill Cannon (Dan Duryea) has a day and a night to come up with the $53 that will pay off his overdue phone bill so that he can receive a call from Chicago with news of his badly injured child. Does he scrape together the money? Are you the kind of person who reads the last page of a mystery first? Fortunately for you, although there is a dramatic payoff after some surprisingly tense developments, Chicago Calling is more interested in portraiture than plot twists; it is a brief window into its protagonist's life and a character study that stands or falls on the skills of its actor. If Duryea can't hold the audience's belief and sympathy, there's nothing here. I am pleased and not too surprised to report that he nails it. I am also unsurprised that I am completely fucking depressed.
For an actor best known for smiling with a sneer and slapping leading ladies around, Duryea possessed a convincing affinity for the sympathetic and fucked-up: wounded Marty Blair, embittered Fred Blake, and now first-class luftmentsh Bill, who only notices that his life has been falling in on his head for some time when it takes someone else with it. He's a mess, but a realistically proportioned one; he has less wrong with him than most antiheroes, but he doesn't have very much right. An amiable disposition, which gets him nowhere without some ambition and resolve. A knack for photography, but no ability to parlay it into a regular job. (His last few attempts at breadwinning spun off into get-rich-quick shortcuts that backfired in easily overlooked, nastily cascading ways, like the "crazy promotion scheme" that ran up the initial phone bill—it didn't get paid at the time because it was a daunting amount, now it's an amount that gets your phone disconnected.) He smiles easily, but all the lines in his face are anxious. He drinks too much. He's not a dramatic alcoholic, he doesn't wreck rooms or black out or afford his director any opportunity for expressionist montages; he's just an automatically apologetic, chronically unreliable, irrelevantly talented man who's let his wife down so often that she's taking their daughter and going to stay with her parents in Baltimore before she does anything she'll regret, like agree to give him yet another second chance, and Duryea plays him with the bewildered passivity of someone who has ceased to expect anything from himself and doesn't understand why other people still do. He loves his daughter dearly. That's never in doubt, from the first moment he ambles down the concrete steps of the slum his family's come to and a dark-haired nine-year-old with a dirty face (Melinda Plowman) runs to meet him; he's even a good father in the sense that he offers her unconditional affection and as much attention as he can muster and she loves him fiercely in return. But he's no use when it comes to the other, practical aspects of parenting and partnership and his wife (Mary Anderson) has the audience's support when she says directly, "I'm not leaving you because I don't love you. I still do. I think I always will . . . but I've lost faith in you, and that's the worst thing that can happen to a marriage." You want to be able to root for him. He always wants things to get better, he just doesn't know how. Ten minutes into the movie, you can already see where that kind of wishful thinking ends.
So naturally the film takes this directionless character and gives him a situation which demands action: he learns via telegram that a road accident outside of Chicago has left Nancy hospitalized in critical condition; the surgery is scheduled overnight and Mary will call the next morning with an update. Bill is frantic. This plan only works if he has a working phone, and the friendly but law-abiding lineman just shut it off. He can't get an extension from the phone company because customers are always pleading with them not to shut off service for one emergency or another. He can't get a loan from the bank without collateral—he already pawned his camera to pay for the trip to Baltimore; his wife was prepared to hock her wedding ring—and charities don't pay out on the spot. He pleads with his closest drinking buddy, a short-order cook whose wife is tired of finding Bill passed out on their couch: "This is an emergency! I'm good for twenty-five bucks!" The man looks him in the eye and replies evenly, "You're a good guy and all that, but you're not good for twenty-five bucks." This is how a life falls apart, imperceptibly until the landslide. The poverty line funnels like a fish trap, Avernus' easy descent. Institutions are indifferent; person-to-person goodwill is easily burned. Any helping hand can make a difference, but Bill's only known allies in L.A. are the family dog and the ten-year-old boy (Gordon Gebert) who ran him over slightly with his bike and tagged along out of loneliness afterward. Even the expected desperate race against the clock never quite materializes, because after the initial galvanizing burst of panic, Bill in a crisis can't actually get his shit together any faster than Bill on any other day of the last five years. He gets a dishonest chance and goes back on it, but not fast enough to prevent spiraling consequences; he gets a last-minute honest opportunity and throws himself into it with a tenacity that surprises the audience, but it might not be enough. He is heartbreakingly affectionate with Bobby, a neglected stray of a kid who reminds him of his daughter: takes him to a baseball game, tries to impart some painfully admitted moral lessons, even tucks him in at the end of the day, which doesn't raise an eyebrow from Bobby's adult sister; she's already made clear her intentions to offload the kid on a foster home as soon as she's married. In response to Bill's well-meant parenting advice, she challenges, "Well, how would you like the job of bringing him up?" Bill being serious sounds like sarcasm in Duryea's light voice, unless you're listening for it: "I wouldn't mind." Here at least is something he's good at. Here's someone he can take care of. He can't do a thing for his daughter except hope. If he was going to do anything else, it needed to happen a long time ago.
The cinematography matches the unsentimental story. John Reinhardt and Robert De Grasse's L.A. isn't the glittering, dangerous City of Angels, city of gumshoes and torch singers, of wrongful convictions and criminal rackets. It's a city with construction sites and freeways, traffic jams and food trucks; it is filmed on overcast mornings and flat, washed-out afternoons, deliberately eschewing dramatic chiaroscuro even in night scenes, where a demolition site looks like a science-fiction wasteland, but not like Venetian blinds. The location shooting is practically a documentary of Bunker Hill before the redevelopment. Bill and Mary live in one of the rickety, craning, chopped-up apartments that cling to the slope of the hill like stilt houses at low tide; their daughter plays in an Escher-maze of tenement stairs and back porches, hopscotching on steep concrete and scrapping in fights for her father's honor, which he is all the more poignant to him because he's given up on it himself. The film's major departure from realism comes before the credits in quick, charged shots of telephone poles and wires, a chattering babble of voices that resolves itself into an operator's neutral tones: "Chicago calling, Chicago calling . . ."1 I might as well mention here that the ending is a little whiplashy. I can see what it's doing in the story—and I can see that it's meant to provide a fragile reason for going on with, not a consolation prize—but the film at 75 minutes is already a tightly wound little programmer and the speed with which it snaps through the climax to the end titles left me blinking a little at the screen. It's not the wrong last line, but I don't know if it needed to be spoken. It simplifies things.
No prizes for guessing the movie was a box-office failure. Depending on the socioeconomics of the audience, I suspect Bill was either an unsympathetic protagonist or a painful one. The latter, I understand. Since October, I've been living in my cousins' guest room. Technically it might be rushthatspeaks' office, but at the point when I moved in it was occupied by a futon, a bookshelf, a desk made out of packing boxes, and a large quantity of still-boxed manga. I moved in my mattress, my desk, my dresser, and the green basket chair in which I have a perpetual pile of jackets because the closet is full. Everything else is in storage. My husband and our cats are living with a different set of friends. He was out of work for a full year and employed part-time for three-quarters of another and my part-time jobs and freelancing didn't make enough money to support two people and two cats in an apartment rented when our finances were very different. You can see a crash coming from a long way off, but that's different from being able to avert it. And I am damn sure that I did not drink myself out of my marriage (I stopped by the Somerville Theatre's Christmas party at Hong Kong last night, I watched my husband participate in a scorpion bowl drinking contest, David the projectionist offered me a soothing lead pipe to the skull,2 everything's jake) and I am more fortunate in my friends than Bill Cannon, but the melodramatic suspense of the plot is less painful to me than the accurate reproduction of that bottomless cold-sweat, fast-sliding feeling where suddenly there are no options ahead but bad ones. I've asked people for any work they could give me and I've known it wouldn't cover the bills. I ran my health into the ground and we're still not living on Leonard Street. I respect Chicago Calling immensely for not being the kind of Hollywood story where hard work guarantees redemption, as if the demonstration of willingness were sufficient to get a break from the universe,3 and I am not at all sorry to have seen it, because Duryea is just as good as I had hoped after reading that he thought Bill his best role, but I also finished the movie and dialed up seaQuest on Netflix and stared at Ted Raimi until I felt better. My adrenaline levels went down sometime after that. I don't get that tense with actual noirs. This encounter brought to you by my compassionate backers at Patreon.
1. I am ambivalent about the film's opening sequence proper: I like the device of seeing the secondary characters about their daily lives before we know their importance to the protagonist—even before we know who the protagonist is—but the voiceover is more suited to an episode of The Twilight Zone than a feature film. I'm also not sure I believe that this movie is about "test[ing] a man's faith in his fellow man." The faith tested in Chicago Calling is Bill's in himself. Just the fact that he doesn't collapse in a paralysis of despair at the premise is a point in his favor, but he's failed for so long at most of the things he cares about, why should he have any confidence about this one?
2. With the exception of the night I spent in Providence last week, I have averaged three to four hours of sleep a night since sometime in November at least. Most nights I don't fall asleep until well after dawn. This is neither pleasant nor sustainable. Quite honestly, I'd be delighted if the Benadryl knocked me out. It doesn't seem to have happened yet.
3. For a Catholic innovation, there's a lot of Protestant work ethic in the Production Code.