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This is one of the more famous film noirs, probably by virture of its rather anti-noir sentimentality and the fact that it's really a harder version of older James Stewart movies - the kind in which he plays an idealist overcoming daunting odds.
The highly entertaining show takes a true story and softens most of the details, effectively stripping away the corrupt facts, whitewashing the Chicago police and substituting a high-tech (for 1948) suspense finale. The Fox Film Noir presentation includes an important extra, a commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini that compares the sanitized version with what really happened in Chicago between 1933 and 1944.
Call Northside 777 is credited as James Stewart's first 'mature' performance movie, the one where he dropped his "aw shucks" mannerisms and took on a new set of gestures indicating a less secure personality with slightly neurotic touches. It's a change that he developed through his Anthony Mann westerns of the fifties, a guy who wants to be a selfish loner but in show after show learns his lesson and does something for the good of the community or his fellow man. Thus we have a Stewart for the post-war years, who starts out tough but slowly melts into the old Jimmy everyone loves.
In this picture he acts like he doesn't care about a wrongly convicted man while grousing about the lack of equal sympathy for the family of the policeman that was killed. But once the veneer of cynicism is pulled away we're left with the same old fellow who gives impassioned speeches to rooms full of disagreeable men: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It's a Wonderful Life and so forth. In this film he points to a statue of blind justice and makes a little speech about her sword cutting both ways. Stewart is hard to disparage, but it's an act repeated in at least three-fourths of his work.
Just about everything else in Call Northside 777, at least until we get to the truth-twisting, is prime film noir material. Director Henry Hathway was in his most creative period, following through on a string of thrillers shot on the streets of real cities. Striving for docu realism in his flashback to the eleven year-old crime, he intercuts newsfilm from the 1930s with matching recreations. Many interiors were surely made in Hollywood but a lot of the film is shot on location in Chicago. One visit to a massive iron prison lends the film the kind of verisimilitude that sets could never equal - a giant round prison block with hundreds of tiny cells.
The new reality is also expressed in scenes built around then-modern technology - spy cameras, wirephoto machines, and a drawn-out scene with a brand-new lie detector machine.
The film also acknowledges a real world out there that Hollywood had previously ignored. Most of Stewart's investigation takes place in the Polish neighborhoods, and we're drenched in real ethnic flavor. In many cases, real citizens are used as extras. Fox led the industry with these street-reality films that moved noir away from gothic lighting and toward stylistic effects based on documentary realism.(spoiler)
In some crucial story points Call Northside 777 stays resolutely noir. Stewart eventually finds his missing witness by inducing a miserable alcoholic woman to inform on a friend. Cornering the witness doesn't mean she'll cooperate, however, and Stewart's exhausting efforts turn out to be in vain. The wrongly-jailed man is finally freed, a happy scene. But his wife has since remarried, blotting out hope of a truly glorious reunion. A family has been destroyed and lives blighted.
But the changes made to the documented truth - changes unacknowledged by the movie - are what really tell the tale. The movie invents a laughably silly story about a photo blowup that presents dramatic new evidence in the nick of time. In reality, the reporter discovered that back in 1933 the police falsified an arrest card to hide the fact that the only witness to the crime had been shown Wiecek several times before the lineup and was probably coached to finger him by a corrupt precinct Captain. 1
Changing these particulars clears the police department of any complicity in framing Wiecek eleven years before, and shows how solidly the lid could clamp down on any Hollywood attempt to tell the truth about misbehaving authorities, especially law enforcement. Even after this whitewash the film has to end with a lot of sanctimonious speechifying about how only in America could a "mistake" like this be corrected, the old "this isn't Russia" excuse. We're supposed to look the other way at corruption because people aren't being summarily executed, or locked up without access to lawyers or legal rights -- oops, these days they are. Call Northside 777 is chilling in its own way ... Mr. Smith meets the Watergate coverup. The commentary on this disc alters our perception of an "affirming" movie and the era in which it was made.
The direction and acting in Call Northside 777 cannot be faulted. Jimmy Stewart is at the center of a large cast starting with Richard Conte's convincingly innocent convict and Lee J. Cobb's tough editor (the real editor was a woman, it turns out). The beautiful Helen Walker has an odd benign role as Stewart's supportive wife and Kasia Orzazewski and Joanne De Bergh are unfamiliar faces doing a great job as Wiecek's relatives. John McIntire is a cantankerous rep from the State Attorney's Office and a young E.G. Marshall is Helen's new husband.
Thelma Ritter can be glimpsed for one moment as a Police Captain's secretary, Percy Helton is a mailman and Charles Lane a prosecuting attorney. Lionel Stander can only be recognized by his voice - he's in the bunk above Wiecek in prison. Otto Waldis is a pistol-packing immigrant who provides the film's only moment of actual jeopardy, when Stewart enters a cramped rooming house to buttonhole his witness.
Fox's DVD of Call Northside 777 is a good transfer nicely encoded but clearly not as carefully retouched as their Studio Classics line of discs. There is some minimal damage here and there. The soundtrack is robust and if the graphic on the back of the package is to be believed, one of the tracks is in two channel stereo.
Besides the recommended commentary track, which offers a lot more detail on the altering of the true story than I've mentioned above, the disc has a trailer and a newsreel of the premiere.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Call Northside 777 rates:
1. The photo blowup wirephoto
scene creates a tense ending, but it makes no sense. First, if one could read the newspaper date on
a blowup made from a photographic paper print, then just using a magnifying glass or a microscope would
reveal the date as well. Second, just seeing the pattern of photos and other layout items on the front page
of the paper could easily show what day's paper it was. Third, surely the Lee J. Cobb character could
call ahead to tell Stewart that they'd seen the date before the print was being sent on the wire.
And fifth, successive blowups of the area of the photo with the newspaper get blurrier and blurrier,
until the last magnification, where it looks as if the Hubbell telescope was suddenly put to use.
It really makes it look as if Stewart has falsified the evidence.