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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
From the vaults of 20th Century Fox comes another fine Noir - CALL
NORTHSIDE 777. Produced for the studio by Otto Lang in 1948 it
continued Fox's splendid policy of producing realistic semi-documentary
style thrillers in the great tradition of their earlier and memorable
successes "The House On 92nd Street" (1945), "Boomerang" (1947) and
"Kiss Of Death" (1947). Although CALL NORTHSIDE 777 lacked the
sharpness and depth of these three classics it nevertheless still
managed to be an engaging, sublime and well defined thriller thanks in
no small measure to the excellent cast (particularly those in
supporting roles), the brilliant stark monochrome cinematography by
genius Joe McDonald and the tight and taut direction by the faultless
Henry Hathaway who had the year before gained universal acclaim for his
work on "Kiss Of Death". Based on writings by newspaper man Charles
Clarke CALL NORTHSIDE 777 had a beautiful screenplay by Jarome Cady and
Based on a true story the picture relates how the killing of a policeman in Chicago in 1932 led to the wrongful arrest and conviction of Polish immigrant Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) on foot of a dubious alibi and a dishonest identification. James Stewart is the reporter P.J. McNeal of the Chicago Times who is asked to investigate a newspaper advertisement placed by a Polish Charwoman offering $5000 for evidence that will get her son out of prison after 10 years of incarceration. McNeal at first thinks nothing of the assignment but when he meets the mother Tillie Wiecek (Kasia Orzazewski) and begins to delve into the case he finds little discrepancies and things that simply don't add up. With further exhaustive investigation - and against the steel will of the city authorities - he is able to prove by the obscure date on a newspaper in a photograph (blown up 140 times) that at the time of the killing Wiecek could not have committed the crime.
The acting is superb from all concerned! Jimmy Stewart is terrific as the crusading reporter. Fresh from his tremendous success in the brilliant "It's A Wonderful Life" the year before this was a new departure for the actor to appear in more serious roles. And with "Winchester 73" just around the corner he would soon embark on his greatest and most accessible characterization - the western hero. Richard Conte too is good as the wrongly accused Wiecek but quite fascinating are two women in supporting roles. Firstly Kasia Orzazewski is outstanding as the the anguished, pitiful and distressed mother. Her portrayal is sincere and heartfelt. Also excellent is Bette Garde as the lying and dishonest witness Wanda Skutnik. But missing is a scene that would show her being discredited. Pity they never thought of doing one! It would have been very satisfying! Another fault with the movie is the absence of a music score. Alfred Newman wrote a sturdy and dramatic Main Title and a soaring end title to close the picture but there is no music throughout the film and there are a couple of scenes crying out for some encouragement that only music can provide. It seemed a daft policy of Zanuck in the forties to restrict the use of music in Fox's pictures (the most blatant instance being "The Gunfighter" in 1950). Was he trying to save money? Who knows? However, music not withstanding CALL NORTHSIDE 777 is still a marvellous and engrossing motion picture and remains a timeless classic.
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.
"Call Northside 777" is a well made crime drama shot in semi-documentary style. It benefits from a solid script, and tight direction (by Henry Hathaway). It also features a naturalistic James Stewart as a sharp investigative reporter; much of the success of the film is due to his thoroughly convincing performance. A fine support cast includes Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb and Helen Walker. What ages the film a bit is the now somewhat dated technology featured (a lengthy episode in which the lie detector is treated in detail, along with certain photographic reproduction and transference techniques). Yet, one can view these aspects as historically accurate representations, and enjoy the total production, which is on a commendably high level.
Call Northside 777 has James Stewart patiently trying to nail down
enough facts to get Richard Conte a pardon from a murder for which he
was falsely convicted. The tale is told in the documentary style that
Henry Hathaway developed post World War II and that Darryl F. Zanuck
used in several 20th Century Fox films.
On orders from editor Lee J. Cobb, Stewart checks out the source behind a small personal advertisement in the Chicago Sun-Times where he works. The ad is placed by Richard Conte's mother who works as a cleaning woman and saved enough money to offer a reward of $5000.00 for information clearing her son.
Back during the last days of Prohibition, Conte and another man were sent up for killing a Chicago policeman in a grocery store that fronted for a speakeasy. Conte was convicted mainly on the eyewitness testimony of the owner of the establishment Betty Garde.
Stewart gradually comes to believe in Conte's innocence and works tirelessly on his behalf. The best single performance in this film is by Betty Garde. A real portrait in evil that one is.
This has always been a film I've had an identity with. I had a similar situation in my former job with NYS Crime Victims Board. I had a case where a man sustained multiple injuries including the loss of a leg when a car drove up on a sidewalk and hit him. The report was never written up as any kind of crime, just an accident. The driver was given a summons and that was that.
I did a lot of work to prove the police were wrong in their action and it took two years, but I gathered enough evidence and my claimant was declared a crime victim and received the benefits from my former agency. The perpetrator was never charged with anything, but that was not in my mandate. Nevertheless I know exactly what Jimmy Stewart had to prove and how hard it is. The police even more than most of us do not like to admit they are wrong.
Call Northside 777 is a nicely done documentary style feature which is a great lesson in what a man with determination can accomplish.
The neighborhood in the movie was authentic. The church seen in it was
my childhood parish church, Holy Trinity. In the movie, the buildings
across the street from the church were torn down to build one-story
apartments. Behind the apartments, the expressway was built. This
happened sometime after the movie's debut.
Like many movie goers, i find the use of neighborhood scenes crucial to the story line. The director did a fine job blending in the story line with the use of Chicago area footage.
Richard Conte's portrayal adds to the quality of the movie. Never disappointing, Jimmy Stewart did outstanding work. With the support of fellow cast members and film crew, "Call Northside 777" is a movie worth seeing. Even a second time.
Call Northside 777 is a genuinely engaging film. It has reliable James Stewart as an investigative reporter on a story about an alleged cop killer in prison. At first he believes that the prisoner is guilty but then becomes convinced otherwise and is willing to risk his professional reputation on clearing him. The pace of the film is told like a gritty docudrama with no dramatic musical underscore for effect. But more importantly, this film is interesting to watch for a time capsule of post WWII Chicago. The Chicago Times, the police precincts, the ethnic neighborhoods that existed then and a whole sequence of a wireless photo copier. This is generations before the fax machine was ever conceived. This film is important as Stewart was beginning his maturing film roles in the postwar period and taking on good narrative stories and less goodguy next door roles which were going out of fashion.
Based on a true story, "Call Northside 777" follows P.J. McNeal, a
newspaper reporter played by James Stewart, as he investigates a decade
old murder case. The setting is Chicago in the 1930s and 40s.
Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) has been convicted of a cop killing and sentenced to 99 years in prison. Convinced of her son's innocence, Frank's mother, an elderly and lowly cleaning lady, takes out an ad in the newspaper for information that will help free her son. McNeal grudgingly looks into the case, but doubts Wiecek's innocence. As the film moves along, McNeal slowly changes his perception of Wiecek.
Some viewers consider this to be a film-noir. To me, it is more of a docudrama, a staging of a real life story. The dialogue seems realistic. And the acting is low-key and credible. The film also highlights the technology of the era, including the use of the printing press, the polygraph, and a miniature camera.
But what impressed me most was the use of the Chicago locations where the real life story took place. Further, the B&W visuals are appropriately drab, dreary, and depressing, which reflects the tone of the actual events. There's very little background music, which also adds authenticity to the film. The only downside is the matter-of-fact procedural style in which the story is told, especially relative to the fatherly VO narration at the film's beginning and end. The film comes across at times as dry, and lacking emotional depth.
Devoid of cinematic hype, and told in a straightforward and plodding manner, "Call Northside 777" will appeal to people who seek realism in films. And, of course, the film's basis in fact, vis-a-vis fiction, adds to its credibility.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
James Stewart is a reporter who becomes involved in an old murder case
in "Call Northside 777," directed by Henry Hathaway and costarring Lee
J. Cobb and Richard Conte. The film is done semidocumentary style, in
black and white, and is based on a true story.
Much of the movie is done in a low-key, realistic way, with most of the energy coming from Stewart. It takes us through, at some length, certain procedures, such as the administration of a lie detector test. But the movie isn't about that. It's about a reporter's passion for the unjust imprisonment of a young man, who at the time he takes up the cause, has been in prison for 11 years. His wife divorced him at his own request, and his mother has been scrubbing floors to make money to offer a reward. The viewer becomes very engrossed in the story along with Stewart.
Stewart gives an excellent performance which hearkens back to "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" in a sense - the second half of the film calls for Mr. Smith's commitment, passion, and anger, and Stewart delivers. In the beginning, he's a cynical reporter who doesn't even want to do the story, and then as the facts emerge, he realizes there has been a gross injustice. What an actor. He's surrounded by strong performances from Helen Garde, Kazia Orzazewski, Cobb and Conte, who is very convincing as an innocent man.
The most exciting part of the film is at the end, and here's where the spoiler comes in. To prove Conte's innocence, a very early version of a fax machine is used in the form of the AP wire, and it is suspenseful and fascinating to watch the increasingly enlarged photos come off the roll. The final moment, of course, as the last picture is developed, is thrilling. I had just one problem with the scene. The Stewart character is determined to enlarge the photo enough to see the date on a newspaper - when in fact, the headline would have been enough, as one could have gotten the date by researching the headline. It's a minor point. It's a great story and a wonderfully atmospheric movie, taking us into the seedy side of Chicago.
Unfortunately, not has much has changed today in the justice system. If you have no money and no advocates, all too often what happened to Frank Wiecek is repeated over and over. But as Stewart tells Conte - I'm paraphrasing - "A state has admitted it made a mistake. That's no small thing. And it wouldn't happen anywhere else in the world." True enough.
In 1932 December, in Chicago, the Polish Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde)
runs a speakeasy during the Prohibition. When the policeman Bundy is
murdered inside the illegal bar, Frank W. Wiecek (Richard Conte) and
his friend Tomek Zaleska are arrested and sentenced to serve 99 years
each in the Illinois State Penitentiary.
Eleven years later, the Chicago Times' editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb) is curious with an advertisement offering a US$ 5,000.00 reward for information about the identity of the killers of the policeman eleven years ago. He assigns the efficient reporter P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) to interview the person responsible for the ad. McNeal discovers that Frank's mother Tillie Wiecek (Kasia Orzazewski), who is a janitor, has saved her salary for eleven years to prove the innocence of her beloved son and now is offering the reward for additional information. McNeal is skeptical and believes that Frank is a cop killer, but his matter is successful and Kelly asks him to investigate further. Soon he changes his mind and realizes that Frank is a victim of the corrupt system.
"Call Northside 777" is an engaging movie about injustice and redemption based on a true story. The names were changed but most of the location is real. Movies of trial are usually attractive and James Stewart is one of the best actors of the cinema history. The result is a great movie directed by the also excellent Henry Hathaway. The only remark is the awful line of McNeal in the end of the movie: "Aw, look, Frank, it's a big thing when a sovereign state admits an error. But remember this: there aren't many governments in the world that would do it." Terrible way to admit an error that has cost eleven years of a man's life and made him lose his beloved wife and son. My vote is eight.
Title (Brazil): "Sublime Devoção" ("Sublime Devotion")
This is a movie whose type later became familiar as "realistic crime-investigation narrative" primarily on the strength of a handful of films such as "the Lineup", "Kid Glove Killer" and this effort. It was in fact based on an actual 1932 case, we are told by historians, mostly on articles written by reporter James P. Mcguire. The one true thing said about the film by some of its recent reviewers is that the film benefits greatly--even looks modern to the 21st century eye--because it was filmed in the great city of Chicago and not on a Hollywood back lot. Solid director Henry Hathawy made use of unusual on-site lighting, locations and buildings to establish the milieu of the story-line in time and place. The plot line has one flaw, I suggest; I have seen it done as a TV one-hour drama and as this 111 minute feature, and it worked both ways for me because it features a straightforward "investigation" motif--a reporter trying to find out if a sentenced cop-killer is guilty or actually innocent. The flaw for me is the incredulity of the reporter before, during and long into his diligent and professional search for the facts in the case; anyone who knew anything about the police of the United States, Chicago especially, as they operated in 1932 and still operate today, would know two facts--that eyewitness identifications can, notoriously, be erroneously made; and that the justice system in the United States was then lacking in forensic sciences, politically corrupted and often set against minority-group defendants and suspects--conditions which have worsened in some respects since that time. Having said this, I add that the rest of the film is well-photographed, a good black-and-white, adventure, painstakingly presented. The script was adapted from the original articles as fictionalized biography by Leonard Hoffman and Quentin Reynolds, with screenplay by Jerome Cady and Jay Dratler. Cinematography by Joe Macdonald, music by Alfred Newman and consistent art direction by Lyle Wheeler and Mark-Lee Kirk, costumes by Kay Nelson and period set decorations by Walter M. Scott and Thomas Little all aid the realistic feel of this film very professionally. The body of the work comprises reports and arguments between a reporter, played ably by Jimmy Stewart, his editor --the powerful Lee. J. Cobb, and his wife, the attractive and capable Helen Walker, relative to his assignment-- finding out of Frank Wiecek was guilty of the crime for which he has served years in prison already. The case becomes an assignment for the ace reporter when he is assigned to investigate an offer of a reward for information leading to the man's exoneration; he finds out the offer of payment came from the man's aged mother who is scrubbing floors to feed herself and get money for this purpose. The case then turns on Stewart's ability to locate a missing witness, his growing belief in Wiecek's innocence and the use of a wire-photo, then a new and unusual technology, to prove that this star witness for the prosecution had been shown the accused--standard illegal police procedure--before she had made her original identification. In the cast besides Stewart who is charismatic, and very good though not ideal in the role, and Cobb and Walker, are many good actors. Kasia Orzazewski plays the mother, Richard Conte is good as Wiecek, Betty Garde is the elusive witness and Joanne de Bergh the wife who divorced the imprisoned Wiecek at his insistence. Among others in the cast are Moroni Olsen, George Tyne, Thelma Ritter, E.G. Marshall, Walter Greaza, Howard K. Smith, Samuel S. Hinds and Percy Helton. This is a deliberately paced and very realistic movie; it could have been done differently, but as noted above, my only reservation about its merits lies in the attempt to make the central character perhaps too annoyed at his assignment to be believable as a hard-boiled 1930s reporter a corrupt nation, city and legal environment. This is still a powerful and personal account of an injustice and how difficult it is in a bureaucratic country to right even the most obvious wrong. The film is memorable and often engrossing by my standards even today.
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