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Call Northside 777 (1948)

December 30th, 2006 · No Comments

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Under a title card proclaiming “This Is A True Story,” we’re introduced to the city of Chicago, “a city of brick and brawn, concrete and guts, with a short history of violence beating at its gut” according to our narrator. The chroniclers of this history are the newspapermen working for publications like The Chicago Daily News, The Tribune and The Times.

In December 1932, a policeman is shot down in a speakeasy in the Polish district. Police are directed to Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), an ex-con who gives contradictory statements under intense questioning, even though he maintains he knew nothing of the crime. Wiecek and his friend Tomek Zaleska are identified by the speakeasy operator and quickly sentenced to 99 years in Stateville Penitentiary.

Twelve years later, an ad appears in the Chicago Times offering $5,000 for information on the killers of the policeman. The ad is paid for by Wiecek’s mother Tillie with instructions to “Call Northside 777.” The Times’ city editor – played by Lee J. Cobb – smells a story and assigns reporter P.J. McNeal (James Stewart, playing a composite of the reporter and copy editor of the real case) to look into it.

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McNeal protests. “This is sucker bait. Every grifter and mooch in the city will be after that five grand.” But everyone he interviews – Wiecek’s divorced wife, the warden – maintain Wiecek’s innocence and the story snowballs, capturing the public’s imagination. McNeal has reservations, but is unable to let go of the story. He succeeds in getting Wiecek a pardon hearing and has to race against the clock to find admissible evidence that can clear him.

Directed by Henry Hathaway and adapted by Jerome Cady, Jay Dratler, Leonard Hoffman and Quentin Reynolds from articles by James McGuire, Call Northside 777 was the beginning of Jimmy Stewart’s transition from the boy hero audiences had been introduced to in the 1930s and into James Stewart, the weary leading man he’d play in movies like Winchester ’73 and Vertigo.

There are a few things here that are good. This was the first movie to shoot on location in Chicago, and Hathaway went to extremes to stage action on actual locations in and around the Windy City. He cast real cops and residents of the Polish district in many of the non-speaking parts. This approach makes for a terrific historical document of both the city of Chicago, and the state of journalism at the time.

 

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There are also a few things that are missing. Suspense would be one. Keeping with the true-to-life format, the real killers never surface to make McNeal’s job interesting. McNeal himself is never put in much danger at all. Wiecek just hangs around prison waiting to get a pardon hearing. Conte is okay in the role, but hardly memorable.

McNeal’s relationship with his editor also falls sort of flat. The interesting thing would have been to cast a woman in the Lee J. Cobb part. The Chicago Times’ city editor in the real case was actually a woman, but apparently, the filmmakers decided audiences wouldn’t accept that. This flick sorely needed a little sexual chemistry. Poor Helen Walker has little to do as McNeal’s housewife.

Despite that, James Stewart comes through and redeems the film. The scene where he goes to Kasia Orzazewski, who’s down on her hands and knees actually scrubbing floors, and has to tell her he’s not there to help her or her boy – just write the story – is a classic. Stewart’s portrait of a professional man nagged by his conscience clearly resonates, and shows why Stewart is one of the greatest movie stars of all time.

Tags: Golden Age of Hollywood

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