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Chicago Calling (1951) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

bill bobby mary phone

Principal social themes: suicide/depression, addiction (alcohol), homelessness/poverty

United Artists. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Dan Duryea, Mary Anderson, Gordon Gebert, Ross Elliott, Melinda Plowman, Judy Brubaker, Marsha Jones, Roy Engel, Dick Curtis, Gene Roth. Written by Peter Berneis and John Reinhardt. Cinematography by Robert De Grasse. Edited by Arthur H. Nadel. Music by Heinz Roemheld. Produced by Peter Berneis. Directed by John Reinhardt. B&W. 74 minutes.

Overview

Chicago Calling is an atypical little production, influenced by European trends such as the postwar rubble films in Germany and the neo-realist cinema of Italy. Shot in the run down, lower-class areas of Los Angeles, the picture is filled with a social consciousness quite unusual in American films. Critics were strongly divided about Chicago Calling , a few seeing it as a minor masterpiece but many others were turned off by the rather contrived denouement of the story.

Synopsis

Dan Duryea plays Bill Cannon, an alcoholic, out-of-work photographer who is unable to provide adequately for his wife, Mary, and his young daughter, Nancy. After Bill’s all-night bender, Mary decides to leave the squalor of their dingy apartment and return to her mother’s home in Baltimore. Bill is heartbroken, but pawns his last valuable so Mary can pay $30 to ride with an elderly couple driving to Maryland. His daughter’s last request before she leaves is for her father to care for her dog Smitty. Bill gets drunk after their departure, and only comes out of his haze days later when he receives a stunning telegram from Mary. There was an auto accident, and Nancy is critically injured and will undergo surgery. Mary tells him to expect her phone call the following morning between 9 and 10 o’clock to give him an update. The telephone repairman arrives with a disconnect order, and Bill begs him to leave the telephone for one more day. He agrees, but explains that Bill will have to settle his unpaid account of $53 to activate the line. Bill visits the phone company to ask for an extension, and then turns to his closest drinking buddy to ask for a loan. He becomes desperate when he is turned down, and next tries a finance company and finally a charity agency. They sympathize with him, but explain that he has to register to receive funds and that takes time. Downcast, he stops at an outdoor lunch counter to spend his remaining money on soup and a hamburger patty for Smitty. The waitress asks him his troubles, and she slips him $5, claiming it came from a sympathetic bystander. Smitty is run over by a youngster on a bicycle. The dog is slightly injured and the boy, Bobby Kimball (Gordon Gebert), befriends Bill. He offers him the loan of his piggybank savings, which comes to $50. Bill learns that Bobby is an orphan, who is being raised by Babs, his older sister. She complains that she is sick and tired of being saddled with the boy. When Bobby learns that his sister has confiscated his bank, he steals a roll of bills that had fallen out of the pocket of Art, Babs’s boyfriend, who is napping in Bobby’s bed. Bobby offers this money to Bill, but when he returns to the phone company, their office has already closed. Bill passes the evening with Bobby, who loses and later recovers the roll of money. Bill decides to return the money to Art, who is outraged by the theft and threatens to file charges with the police. Bill works all night at a construction site to earn a few bucks. Early in the morning, he spends all these funds using a pay phone to call the Chicago police, but they are unable to find information about his daughter before his money runs out. Dejected, Bill returns to his flat. To his surprise, the phone rings, and he learns that the telephone repairman, on his own volition, has just reattached his line for one hour so that he can receive his emergency call. Two police detectives show up, however, to arrest Bill due to Art’s complaint. As they are taking him away, the phone rings and they allow him to answer it. He learns from his wife that Nancy died during her operation. One of the officers, understanding the situation, calls the station and manages to void the order for Bill’s arrest. They release him, but Bill has sunk into a deep depression. Bobby tries to follow him as he walks down the street. Bill walks deliberately into traffic, attempting to get hit, but the cars and trucks either stop or swerve so that he is unharmed. Bill heads to the rail yard and plans to stand in front of a moving train. Bobby enlists the aid of an elderly railroad engineer, but they lose sight of Bill who disappears behind a second train traveling in the other direction. Bobby screams, but as the last of the boxcars pass, sees that Bill is unharmed and runs into his arms. They embrace, and Bill assures the boy that he will be all right. The engineer asks if he is related to Bobby. Bill replies “He’s my son,” and the music swells as the closing credits appear.

Critique

The Hollywood ending, as Bill replaces his lost daughter with Bobby, seems contrived, particularly when you consider the two had met less than twenty-four hours earlier. Given Bill’s circumstances, there would seem to be no way he would be allowed to gain custody of the Kimball boy, in spite of Babs’ comment, “Let me know whenever you want him and he is yours for keeps.” There is also something aberrant that Bill so easily replaces his daughter with a son. True, he loved his daughter, but psychologically he seems to wish she were a boy instead. He tries to instruct her to act with male aggressiveness, for example, by physically confronting bullies. Yet despite this jarring and synthetic conclusion, Chicago Calling is memorable for a number of reasons. The uncompromising and stark portrayal of poverty is unforgettable. The gritty cinematography, almost entirely filmed on location, is impressive. Dan Duryea gives an honest and deeply felt performance. His numbing despair and impulse to commit suicide are totally convincing. The script carefully weaves many social issues throughout the story, particularly depression, alcoholism, and poverty. Throughout the story, Bill Cannon is handed one psychological blow after another until suicide seems the only path to end his ordeal. In behavioral terms, what is Bill’s breaking point? Is it greater or less than the average individual? What motivates him, and in what way does he fit into society? Chicago Calling can be seen on different levels, such as a study in human endurance or even as a black comedy, in which “Murphy’s law” is played out. Students of this film might find it useful to project Bill’s future course. Will his wife ever rejoin him? Will he revert back to alcoholism and his suicidal tendencies?

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