Call Northside 777 (1948)
Call Northside 777 (1948)

Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 52 min.

Release Date: February 18th, 1948 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Henry Hathaway Actors: James Stewart, Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb, Helen Walker, Betty Garde, Kasia Orzazewski, Joanne De Bergh, Howard Smith, John McIntire, Paul Harvey

 


 

T

his is a true story. And it was filmed in Illinois, using real locales whenever possible. Although the great fire of 1871 nearly destroyed Chicago, a new, grander version rose out of the ashes – a city of brick and bronze, whose history was recorded by the valiant newspapermen of the era. But when Prohibition arrives, 1932 would end up becoming the most violent year in its history. By December, an 8th police officer is murdered in the Polish district, where Wanda’s (Betty Garde) grocery store is used as a front for a speakeasy.

Two weeks later, Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) is brought in for questioning concerning Tomek Zaleska (George Tyne), who is the prime suspect for the murder of that 8th policeman, Officer Bundy. And after conflicting testimony to the authorities, both men are sentenced to 99 years in prison for murder. Some 11 years later, in 1944, an ad appears in a paper, offering a $5,000 reward for info on the killing of Bundy, which intrigues City Editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb), who assigns Chicago Times reporter Jim “P.J.” McNeal (James Stewart) to dig deeper. McNeal tracks down Tillie Wiecek (Kasia Orzazewski), Frank’s mother, who desperately wants to help her son get out of prison, certain of his innocence.

“It catches your imagination.” After all that time, the case is thoroughly cold – and already solved, according to a conviction upheld by the Supreme Court. But Kelly is sympathetic to Tillie’s plight, further pushing Jim to conduct an interview with Frank himself at the state penitentiary. But the cynical writer isn’t holding out hope for new revelations; he’s convinced that the jury got it right the first time. “They didn’t give him 99 years for playing hooky.”

“My lawyer was a drunk.” Supposedly, the judge thought the two men were innocent; the eyewitness was sketchy; and the interrogations weren’t by-the-book. The possibility of a wrongful conviction is certainly intriguing; and, for the sake of a good story, McNeal opts to throw some police and political corruption into the fold, which he assumes probably took place regardless of the specific situation. But it isn’t initially a mystery: the leads are dead, Frank’s wife (Joanne de Bergh) divorced him (so she must have little faith), and the sensationalism is fit only for publicity. Nevertheless, as the details unfold, it only makes sense that fresh information should shake up the scenario.

Sure enough, Jim soon starts to wonder about his stance; he seems to be the only holdout, especially since his wife, Laura (Helen Walker), immediately hopes for Wiecek’s exoneration, and continues to suggest that her husband look at the case from a different angle. In many ways, the film resembles “The Life of Emile Zola,” considering that it’s not a private investigator picking through a closed file, but a writer inspiring the public, creating a movement for a reexamination of a forgotten prisoner. Plus, it’s also based on a real crime.

From unexpected witnesses to faulty probing to a nerve-wracking lie detector test to suspicious testimony, “Call Northside 777” covers all the bases when it comes to a police procedural – minus the police – and a courtroom thriller. It’s mostly formulaic and a touch too long, but it’s still engaging; the audience is in the dark as much as the newspapermen, which makes every fresh piece of information exciting. Typically, when characters in the picture know more than viewers, or when viewers know more than the characters, one group has to catch up to the others, stalling meaningful epiphanies. Here, the fact-finding is straightforward; it’s a race for the truth, and roadblocks pop up every step of the way, generating a significant deal of suspense.

With the sudden imposition of a time limit for gathering additional clues and locating missing persons of interest, even greater tension arises. Unfortunately, the unnecessary narrator chimes in after a considerable break, inadvertently pulling viewers out of the trance of the mystery, shattering the immersive illusion of moviemaking. It may intentionally carry a documentary feel, but it works against the riveting subject matter. It’s not enough to diminish the power of the conclusion, however, exposing the striking shortcomings of the judicial system of the time and the wonders of technology (even if some of the facts are distorted for better entertainment value). Interestingly, “Call Northside 777” is often categorized as a film noir, yet even with a few signature elements (men with guns, sleuthing, shadowy environments), it’s primarily a crime drama, missing the major components of a femme fatale, a protagonist caught up in dangerous dealings, money-motivated heists, or gat-brandishing gangsters.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10