In 1932, a cop is killed and Frank Wiecek sentenced to life. Eleven years later, a newspaper ad by Frank's mother leads Chicago reporter P.J. McNeal to look into the case. For some time, McNeal continues to believe Frank guilty. But when he starts to change his mind, he meets increased resistance from authorities unwilling to be proved wrong. Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
This is the last, and in my opinion the best, of director Henry Hathaway's so-called 'numbers' trilogy (the other two are House 0n 92nd Street and 13 Rue Madeline, both badly dated now). It was made at the height of the so-called semi-realist or semi-documentary movement in American film-making, which was just peaking (and soon to decline) when this picture came out. Filmed on location in and around Chicago, it tells the story of a newspaperman who comes to believe in the innocence of a convicted criminal when the man's aged mother places an ad in the paper asking for information about the by now almost forgotten crime her son was accused of.
At first cynical, the reporter comes to believe the man's story, and arranges for him submit to a lie-detector test, which he passes. In short time the hunt is on the one person who can help prove the man's innocence. This is a very gutsy film for its day, and along with the much inferior The Naked City, released at about the same time, it is the one that makes the best use of urban locations. We see a long-gone Chicago, a city of brick and cement buildings that echo with the footsteps of busy men in heavy overcoats on their way to the 'office'. It is also a city with a huge, almost underground immigrant population, which we see only glimpses of early in the film, but whose members take on increasing prominence as the story progresses. The last part of the movie, with the reporter taking to the streets in tough authentic Polish neighborhoods, contains some of the best, most evocative and sympathetic views of the streets, saloons and dingy walk-up apartments of the urban poor I've ever seen. No pity is asked for and none is given. This is simply the way some people live; by beer, boiler-maker, song and crude humor. There is warmth, too, in these tight-knit communities, with their air of familiarity and loyalty, their rules of conduct unknowable to the outsider.
Hathaway is often seen as a plain, almost prosaic director, even at his best. In Call Northside 777 his steady journeyman hand is most welcome. He shows us an American city landscape quite different from what one normally finds in movies. We are in a terrain very much of the interior, the heartland, an America most easterners scarcely know of, its cities just as big and bustling as any on the Atlantic seaboard, but also quite different in tone, style and flavor. The film captures this aspect its midwestern city to perfection.
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