Saturday, January 16, 2010

#95: Call Northside 777 (Henry Hathaway, 1948)

Released: February 1, 1948

Director: Henry Hathaway; Screenplay: Jerome Cady (screenplay), Jay Dratler (screenplay), Leonard Hoffman (adaptation), Quentin Reynolds (adaptation) based on articles by James P. McGuire and Jack McPhaul; Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald; Music: Alfred Newman; Producer: Otto Lang; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: James Stewart (P.J. McNeal), Richard Conte (Frank Wiecek), Lee J. Cobb (Brian Kelly), Helen Walker (Laura McNeal), Betty Garde (Wanda Skutnik), Percy Helton (Mailman), George Tyne (Tomek Zaleska), Kasia Orzazewski (Tillie Wiecek), Paul Harvey (Martin Burns), John McIntire (Sam Faxon), Howard I. Smith (Palmer), E.G. Marshall (Rayska)

- “That's the trouble with being innocent… you don't know what really happened.”

After venturing to postwar Tokyo yesterday, the countdown returns to the traditional urban settings of noir crime dramas. Although, we do so with a movie that some will argue is not truly a film noir. There is no femme fatale or the expected flawed central character scrambling to self-created obstacles. I stand by the contention that this is definitely a noir, possibly the preeminent example of the “newspaper noir” subset that I have seen, and that the cynicism that pervades the best noirs is displayed here, it is just that it is seen in different places.

Call Northside 777
is loosely based on the true story of a skeptical Chicago reporter that worked to prove the innocence of a man convicted of murdering a police officer. The reporter, P.J. McNeal (based on real-life reporter James P. McGuire), is portrayed by the incomparable Jimmy Stewart, an excellent casting choice. When you see Jimmy Stewart, you know that the character is someone that will fight for the “good side” all the way to the end. In this tale, he is assigned to the story after his newspaper superiors come across a classified ad taken out by an aging woman (Kasia Orzazewski) that offers $5,000 to anyone that can provide evidence to exonerate her convicted son. Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) was picked out of a lineup by a witness to a grocery store robbery (Betty Garde) and sentenced to life imprisonment. At the time of his meeting with McNeal, Frank had already served eleven years. Disbelieving at first, McNeal gradually comes to believe that Wiecek’s professions of innocence are the truth. The newspaper then picks up the story as a crusade to free an innocent man, with McNeal leading the charge. When the paper bales on the campaign, McNeal refuses to give up and continues the search throughout the city of Chicago.

It is this trip through 1940s Chicago and the Polish neighborhoods of the Wiecek family and other first and second generation immigrants that add color to a familiar storyline. The tight-knit quality of these communities comes through strongly as McNeal navigates through the tenements, bars, and back allies of the area. The storytelling is done in documentary style, relying heavily on the nature of the work of reporters. The camera simply follows McNeal as he pounds the pavement, chasing down every possible lead, interviewing personalities as he finds them, and continually pouring over stock files and photos, hoping to unearth a detail that had previously been overlooked.

The skepticism is found here in the realization that almost everyone that McNeal encounters is at least somewhat cautious in their responses. Whether true or not, it appears to McNeal – and, by extension, the viewer – that people are being guarded in everything that they do. People are not necessarily downright “dirty” or deceptive, but they are certainly reluctant to admit wrongdoing. So we see things like the police believing that justice has been served when Wiecek is originally convicted, but then becoming unwilling to admit to wrongdoing or assist McNeal in his investigation when evidence begins to turn up showing that they may have jailed the wrong man. Similarly, it is never suggested that Wanda Skutnik maliciously intended to identify an innocent man. The procedure used by the police was flawed, allowing Skutnik’s faulty identification. But her obstinacy in admitting her mistake means that the innocent man will continue to sit in prison. And so we actually do see the dynamic of a single character fighting to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Perhaps they do not arise out of his flawed nature, but they are there all the same.


  1. Hey Dave! I've awarded your blog the Kreativ Blogger Award. Details at my blog.

  2. I have never seen this film. I was wondering if it had the dated voiceover narration of House on 92nd Street and The Street with no Name? A bunch of noirs incorporate this technique and other than He Walked By Night I can't seem to enjoy them. Even T-Men which I know many people love left me cold. Its my pet peeve in noir....I'm always wary of those.

  3. C.K. - Thanks! Give me a day or two and I'll pass it on.

    Anonymous - This one has narration to open the film, describing 1930s era Chicago, so I don't know if that will bother you as well. I've heard this complaint about noir from a few people. For me, I don't have a problem recognizing it as an artifact of the era and just going with it. I agree in a lot of instances, I would rather not have the narration, but it is what it is... in most cases, it doesn't detract from the overall film for me.

  4. I have to admit this is one film I never cared for. It is certainly not due to the cast, Stewart, Conte and Cobb are such terrific actor and they make it watchable.

  5. Dave, since the newspaperman is so often the hero of the hard-boiled films the came before, "newspaper noir" makes sense as a natural subgenre that easily encompasses While the City Sleeps -- but what about Sweet Smell of Success? In any event, I'm sure I saw this on TV as a kid, but I so completely fail to remember it that a fresh look would probably be like a first look now.

  6. John - The cast is superb, no doubt. I enjoyed it. It's not great, but definitely one to see if for nothing else than the cast.

    Samuel - Agree completely on the analysis there. Sweet Smell of Success, though, is almost in a class by itself in every respect! :) But we'll get to that later...

  7. If there is only narration in the beginning and not throughout then it would bother me less. Sweet Smell of Success is incredible. I just watched it for the second time a week ago. One of my top 10 film noirs. I'm slowly acquiring a film noir dvd collection. Kiss me Deadly and Kiss of Death are on there way. Can't wait for the rest of your list.

  8. I rather enjoyed this film. The cast is stellar, and the documentary feel is compelling. Historically, 1932 was absolutely the worst year for organized crime - and the height of the Great Depression - and this hook here is injustice. This is one of Hathaway's best films, methinks and a worthy choice for the countdown.

  9. Thanks, Sam, and I agree. I think that opening montage, setting the scene of organized crime at the time of the story, is really well-done and a joy to watch.

  10. Missed this review, too. Guess you write them quicker that I read 'em. :)
    I did not like this movie at first, because I hate even the slightest hint at darkness in Mr. Stewart's characters (that is why I prefer his pre-war pictures), and here his reporter character took WAY too long to start caring for the wrongly imprisoned guy. But otherwise it was quite satisfying: I generally enjoy Mr. Hathaway's directorial work.