Call Northside 777 is the latest in director Henry Hathaway’s series of fact-based dramas.
Together with producer Louis de Rochemont, the creator of the March of Time series of newsreels, Hathaway made The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), which were both based on the wartime exploits of the OSS.
Unlike Hathaway’s previous film, Kiss of Death (1947), which was fiction, but made in a verité style and filmed on location, Call Northside 777 is more in line with Louis de Rochemont’s Boomerang (1947), which was directed by Elia Kazan.
Like Boomerang, Call Northside 777 is about a miscarriage of justice.
In 1933, Joseph Majczek and another man, Theodore Marcinkiewicz, were convicted of killing a Chicago police officer the previous year. In 1944, their convictions were overturned when a crusading reporter named James McGuire helped prove that the eyewitness who gave the testimony that sent the two men to prison had perjured herself under pressure from the police.
Majczek is renamed “Frank Wiecek,” and he’s played by Richard Conte. The crusading Chicago Times reporter is renamed “Jim McNeal” and he’s played by James Stewart.
McNeal’s editor, Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb), spots a notice in the classified section of the Times — “$5000 reward for killers of Officer Bundy on Dec. 9, 1932. Call Northside 777. Ask for Tillie Wiecek 12-7 p.m.” — and sends McNeal to investigate.
Tillie Wiecek (Kasia Orzazewski) is the convicted man’s mother. She earned the $5,000 by scrubbing floors.
After McNeal interviews Mrs. Wiecek, his wife Laura (Helen Walker) says to him, “I wasn’t thinking about the boy, I was thinking about his mother. You know what it is? It catches your imagination. Nobody knows whether she’s right or not. She’s worked so hard, she’s had such faith that, well, I want her to be right.”
McNeal, on the other hand, is hard-nosed and unsentimental about the case. As he tells Wiecek when he goes to prison to interview him, “She believes you. I need proof. This thing’s gotta have sock — mass appeal. It’s the only way we’ll be able to help you.”
Eventually, though, the evidence begins to pile up, and even the cynical McNeal is convinced of Wiecek’s innocence.
Call Northside 777 was released on DVD in 2004 as part of the Fox Film Noir collection, but there’s very little thematically that marks it as “noir.” The closest the film gets stylistically to being a film noir is toward the end of the picture, when McNeal scours the Polish neighborhoods of Chicago in search of the eyewitness in the Wiecek case, Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde). These scenes are bathed in shadows and shot through with suspense.
For the most part, though, Call Northside 777 is lit and shot in a neutral, docudrama fashion, which is a shame, since it was the first big Hollywood production filmed in Chicago. There are a few shots of the Merchandise Mart, the Loop, and Holy Trinity Polish Mission, but most of the film takes place indoors.
It’s a good film, but since it’s mostly a hidebound retelling of established facts, it’s never as thrilling or suspensful as a piece of pure fiction like Kiss of Death. It’s interesting, for instance, that Leonarde Keeler, the co-inventor of the polygraph, plays himself in the scene in which Wiecek is given a lie detector test, but it’s not really the stuff of great drama.
The best thing about the film is Jimmy Stewart’s performance. He handles his character’s progression from a cynical reporter who’s “just doing his job” to a man who’s finally found a cause worth fighting for wholly believable and thoroughly involving.
I will always be a big fan of Jimmy Stewart. He was not only a good actor, but an all-around class act. I’ve never seen this one, but I may have to now. That is a shame the way it was shot though. Seems like a missed opportunity.
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On June 15, 2016, Rowman and Littlefield published HENRY HATHAWAY: THE LIVES OF A HOLLYWOOD DIRECTOR, the first book length biography of Henry Hathaway. In my book I examine Hathaway’s directorial techniques and the effect it had upon James Stewart and other Hollywood luminaries who worked with Hathaway.