In an attempt to prove that an inmate is innocent, a Chicago reporter re-opens a decade old case into the murder of a police officer.
A Chicago policeman is murdered and Frank Wiecek and an acquaintance are arrested and sentenced to 99 years in prison. After Wiecek’s mother offers up a $5,000 reward for information leading to the identity of the actual killers, the lead editor at the Chicago Times assigns reporter PJ McNeal to look into the case. The character of McNeal is brought to life by James Stewart and Wiecek is played by Richard Conte.
Directed by Henry Hathaway and expertly shot by cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, the aesthetics of this very timely film is a mix of standard narrative structure crossed with documentary style elements. By merging the two formats, the filmmakers have created a hybrid docudrama, or more appropriately, a doc-noir, drawing a lot of the visuals from the noir movement of the period. Shadowplay is just as prominent of a component as newsreel inserts.
Unlike many of the films produced in the 1940’s, the script has less of the typical Hollywood meandering and focuses more on information dissemination when and where you need it. We get the goods almost as if it were coming from a credible news source. This approach in the telling of the story is the single most identifiable and unique element of the film and an example of Hathaway’s genius at the creative level.
Call Northside 777 holds the title of being among the first Hollywood features to film on location in Chicago and other areas of Illinois. Many of Hathaway’s films have working class themes and characters, which is one of the strengths of this particular movie. Chicago’s working middle class is honestly represented and realistically portrayed. The real locations crossed with the doc-noir approach makes the story seem a little more within reach.
Call Northside 777 is based on a real world story where two Chicago Times reporters proved that two incarcerated men were wrongfully convicted of murdering a city police officer. The character of Wiecek is based on Joseph Majczek, one of the real individuals that was incarcerated. Jimmy Stewart’s character PJ McNeal is a composite of the two journalists: James McGuire and Jack McPhaul. In the story, McNeal is taken aback by the fact that Wiecek was sentenced to 99 years in prison for killing a police officer, when the penalty for such a crime has historically been execution. In the film, just like in reality, this indicated that the judge who sentenced him did not believe that Wiecek was involved in the murder. Additionally, the guards and the warden at the prison comments to McNeal that Joliet is a place where everyone claims they’re innocent, but Wiecek and his “accomplice” are the only two that everyone believes actually are innocent.
Upon introducing us to Wiecek, Hathaway pushes us to trust his innocence by subtly suggesting his core “good” character. Often times when Wiecek is on screen he’s placed against pleasing architecture, often times in rooms outside of the typical cell area. We rarely see him against backdrops that insinuate he’ll be serving his full life sentence. Additionally, Wiecek is acknowledged by the prison staff as a model prisoner and this is demonstrated when we see him safely working with sensitive and potentially dangerous instruments in one of his early scenes.
McGuire is the quintessential noir investigator, sneaking into police records rooms, discovering forgeries, lost photographs, dealing with police and politicians who stonewall him at every turn, fighting corruption, a flawed judicial system, arguing against the single most ridiculous excuse for not pursuing the case: “what about the cop’s family?” His answer: “what about this innocent man’s family?” The list goes on and there are arguments a plenty. Stewart plays McGuire as a stoic anti-hero of sorts. At first he’s cynical, sure of Wiecek’s guilt, but there is a wonderful use of foreshadowing with the film that gives us consolation: a scene where Stewart is playing a “puzzle game” at his home, essentially communicating to us, the audience, that he’s interested in the pieces and if they fit right he’ll become the detective and solve the case. Although he’s not sympathetic at first, as he talks about the case with his wife, played by Helen Walker, he progressively softens. By the end of the scene he’s teasing us, suggesting that soon we will get to see the heart warming, monologuing Jimmy Stewart character we all know and love.
The film sucks you in with the first shot, a miniature aerial of 1871 Chicago ablaze, recreating the horrific and incredibly famous Great Chicago Fire. The film then begins to move through a mixture of documentary style produced footage intercut with actual documentary footage from the Prohibition Era, when the opening scenes are loosely set. From here, the film shifts back and forth between the documentary aesthetic to your typical noir look as we begin to meet the characters of the story.
Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald attempted to make the film as neo-realistic as possible, an approach that consisted of unusual shots not normally seen in feature films then or today. The style consists of oddly framed shots, often enclosed by set pieces, walls and foreground elements, the end result being a consistent feeling of claustrophobia and imprisonment that exists in as many of the exterior scenes as it does with the interiors thanks to MacDonald’s used of depth of field.
Among the many famous scenes is one shot on location at Joliet State Penitentiary. McNeal’s interview with Wiecek’s accomplice was filmed on site. The circular cell blocks with the multiple tiers and guard tower in the middle makes it clear to us that this is not a set.
Many of the characters in the film were cast using real people or relatively new actors in an effort to fill as many of the roles as possible with people who did not look like actors or weren’t recognizable by experienced moviegoers. Many of the cops were real Chicago cops, some of whom were connected with the real case. One of the most noted appearances in the film is a cameo by Leonarde Keeler, the inventor of the polygraph, who plays the technician that gives Wiecek a lie detector test. An apparent result of the real world casting method is that the editing on the film sometimes seems “hard”, in that many of the lines delivered by non-actors are clipped quicker than lines delivered by professional Hollywood actors. Although jarring at first, this ends up being a positive addition to the already highly experimental aesthetic of the film
A unique element of the film is its focus on the technology of the day and in dealing with the technical detail important to the plot. Hathaway makes it a point that technology is a key element of the world he’s portraying and utilizes excessive close-ups of typewriters, offset printing presses, image reproduction machinery, telephones, pocket cameras and the list goes on. Many of these images are transition fodder, other times they’re props used by some of the characters. Somehow this makes the film seem more relevant in its day, but doesn’t necessarily help us identify with it in the present. With every viewing I find myself fascinated with many of the obsolete tech and methods for getting certain tasks completed. Occasionally Hathaway’s attention to detail can be distracting,for example a scene that ends with a close-up of an article that McNeal has typed up. We’re supposed to be reading the paragraph McNeal has written, yet I find my eyes wandering over to review some of the edit marks that are penciled in above some of the sentences.
The complexity of the story and its execution is intense and because it’s heavily underplayed, it’s easy to lose track of what’s happening. Just as we think Hathaway is going to betray us, somehow the labyrinth manages to come together in the end with a remarkably intriguing climax that has no music score, but somehow manages to work on its own raw merits.
Upon release, the film received many positive reviews and although the real Chicago Times reporters received a Pulitzer Prize for their work, the film unfortunately received very few accolades. The book and the film, however, are responsible for many reforms of law in Illinois State and are the catalyst for law reforms all around the United States. By the time the film was released, James Stewart had become a different actor, growing out of his gangly young man roles and into experienced parts. From here he would move on into his Hitchcock era of filmmaking.
Call Northside 777 is a movie detailing the investigative process, the bureaucratic life we live in and those are the kinds of movies I find the most intriguing, regardless of the period in which they are set. If you’re going to watch at least one noir/mystery film in your life, this is the one I most highly recommend. Because of the complexity of the story, crossed with its execution, I find that this particular film is among the most-rewatchable of the period. Call Northside 777 is an example of efficient and incredibly competent filmmaking and storytelling.
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