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CALL NORTHSIDE 777

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: James Stewart, Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb, Kasia Orzazewski, Joanne De Bergh, Betty Garde, Helen Walker
Director: Henry Hathaway
Audio: English mono 1.0 or stereo 2.0, French mono 1.0
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full frame 1.33:1
Studio: 20th Century-Fox
Features: Commentary, Movietone news footage, trailers
Length: 111 minutes
Release Date: March 15, 2005

"Pieces never make the wrong picture.  Maybe you're looking at them from the wrong angle."

Film ***

On December 9, 1932, in a discreet speakeasy on South Ashland Avenue in Chicago, Illinois, two unknown assailants brutally murdered a police officer in cool blood.  The officer's death was attributed to the rampant crime wave sweeping over Chicago during the waning years of the Prohibition.  Fortunately, the presumed murderers were eventually apprehended, and on November 1933, both men were convicted of their crime and sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison.  For the next eleven years then, those men would languish, largely forgotten, in the penitentiary.

In this fashion, the opening sequence to Call Northside 777 (1948), combining archival news clips with pseudo-documentary film footage, establishes the background of the story to follow.  A starring vehicle for James Stewart, Call Northside 777 is also one of the first "docu-noir" films, using as its basis a well-known criminal case from the state of Illinois.

Stewart, with his gawky, gangly appearance and aw-shucks drawl, may have seemed a highly atypical Hollywood leading man, but audiences gravitated time and again to his humble, down-to-earth screen persona.  James Stewart was a highly versatile actor with a deceptively casual, easy-going style of acting that initially won over fans in such hilarious screwball comedies as The Philadelphia Story and sincere Frank Capra classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  In the post-war years, Stewart branched out into more serious or darker fares, of which Call Northside 777 is a good example.

In the movie, Stewart portrays P.J. McNeal, ace reporter of the Chicago Times.  One day, McNeal's editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb), unearths an intriguing newspaper advertisement concerning a decade-old cold case about the murder of a local police officer.  Offering a cash reward for any information regarding the true identity of the culprit, this classified ad catches the eye of McNeal's keen editor, who sets his ace reporter on the case to dig up more facts.

Following directions in the ad, McNeal goes to the address at Northside 777 to find Tillie Wiecek (Kasia Orzazewski), a pure-hearted and devout woman.  Apparently, it was her son, Frank (Richard Conte), who had been convicted of the cop's murder and thrown into jail; Mrs. Wiecek believes in Frank's innocence and is willing to part with her life's savings for information that will help to secure her innocent son's release from prison.  Was Wiecek truly the wrong man, a patsy falsely accused of a homicide he hadn't committed?  Kelly, ever the intrepid editor, senses a potentially gripping human interest story in the making and insists that McNeal continue to follow up on the dusty evidence from the murder case.

At first, McNeal is highly skeptical of the print-worthy merit of his assignment but accepts it at the behest of his insistent editor.  McNeal interviews Mrs. Wiecek and later her son Frank in prison.  Soon thereafter, McNeal even tracks down Frank's former wife Helen (Joanne De Bergh) and child.  Gradually, as McNeal exhumes old evidence and conducts more interviews, he becomes convinced that Frank Wiecek may well have been innocent after all.

McNeal's hard-nosed investigation, while capturing the reading public's fancy, increasingly encounters resistance from public officials.  Repetitively, McNeal gets the run-around and stonewall treatment from cops, who have their own reasons for not wanting possibly to help free a convicted cop-killer.  An extended polygraph test sequence (filmed with Leonarde Keeler, its actual inventor, playing himself!) supports Wiecek's own declaration of innocence but is considered inadmissible new evidence to re-open the case.  The one eyewitness and finger woman, Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde), whose sole testimony ultimately had condemned Frank Wiecek and his friend Tomek Zaleska to life-long prison terms, is nowhere to be found, and other key figures in the trial are either long-dead or disbarred.  McNeal's investigation has uncovered a potpourri of dead ends among potential clues, both old and new, but like the pieces of the complex jigsaw puzzle which he and his wife tackle each evening, they have yet to be assembled together into a coherent, whole picture.

The eventual outcome of the real case is of course a matter of public record now.  While Call Northside 777 takes some artistic liberties, it is still an intriguing story that just barely scratches at the surface of the tangled webs of deceit and possible political corruption festering in the public offices.  Stewart, as the reporter-turned-detective McNeal, is fine in a darker and transitional role in his career, and his supporting cast is quite solid as well.  Lee J. Cobb was a top character actor of the day and an intense Method actor who would later appear memorably as Marlon Brando's mobster adversary in On the Waterfront and as a juror in the classic courtroom drama 12 Angry Men.  Richard Conte is suitably sympathetic as the possibly wrongly-convicted man, while Kasia Orzazewski is nearly angelic as his devoted and believing mother.  Joanne De Bergh offers a bittersweet but tender portrayal as Frank Wiecek's loving wife, while Betty Garde is providentially wicked as the snarling, ugly-hearted Wanda Skutnik .

Call Northside 777 paints a picture of an ambiguous, immoral world.  With its backdrop of the criminal underworld and reluctant lawmen, it is a very typical example of the film noir genre.  Further enhanced by the authentic locations shot in the Polish quarters, with actual Polish non-professionals filling in as extras, the film reveals the influence of Italian neorealism upon the genre in general.  Other conventions of film noir in Call Northside 777 include the conflicted central anti-hero and the theme of one man-against-the-system, the investigative intrigues of the story, and the evocative black & white look of the film's cinematography.  Even the character of Wanda Skutnik can be considered a loose variation on the femme fatale archetype of the genre.

James Stewart's proletarian role in this film may have been a departure from his usual family-friendly roles, but it opened the door for later, equally mature and dark roles in such classic thrillers as Rear Window or Vertigo.  Moreover, Call Northside 777 helped to establish the framework of the docudrama as a viable entertainment form, an early predecessor to the now-prevalent television movie form.  Call Northside 777 may not be high art, but it is highly involving, a prime example of film noir during its heyday.

Video **1/2

Call Northside 777 is shown in its original black & white, full-frame format.  The dual-layer transfer has been mastered at a bit transfer rate over 7 Mbps.  The picture quality demonstrates the intense contrasts of black and white so typical of the film noir genre and looks fairly good.  However, the film's age is evident in the moderate amount of dust specks, scuff marks, and minor scratches seen throughout the proceedings.

Audio **1/2

Call Northside 777 can be heard either in its original English mono 1.0 or a new stereo 2.0 track.  An optional French mono 1.0 is also provided, along with English or Spanish subtitles.  Generally, the sound, mostly dialogue-driven, emanates from the center or front speakers.  Spatial definition is understandably limited, although the soundtrack is more than adequate for this vintage film.  The extremely minimalist score is supposedly the work of legendary Hollywood composer Alfred Newman but mostly utilizes source music instead of original composition.

Features **

"It's a good world...outside."

Call Northside 777 is the second entry in the Fox Film Noir series.  Current and upcoming entries in this series can be seen in the trailers included on this disc.  Aside from one for Call Northside 777 itself, there are vintage previews for Laura, Panic in the Streets, House of Bamboo, and the sensationalist cops-and-robbers film The Street with No Name.

The best feature on the disc is the commentary track by film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver.  They are clearly enjoying themselves immensely as they watch the film and point out various details in the film.  Most significantly, they describe the real facts, names, and faces of the actual murder case, differentiating between the circumstances of the true investigation and changes made in the film by necessity for dramatic effect.  The commentators also note the film's heavy dependence on the novel technology of the day - the polygraph, miniature camera, printing press, teletypes, wire photo transfer - to further accentuate the realistic reporting quality of the film.

Lastly, brief Movietone news footage (1 min.) covers the premiere of Call Northside 777 at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

Summary:

Based upon Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism, Call Northside 777 is an investigative drama made in the classic film noir mode.  With fine performances all around from the solid cast, this film should appeal to all fans of the film noir genre.

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