Call Northside 777

USA 1948, 111 mins
Director: Henry Hathaway

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

In one of the finest postwar Twentieth Century Fox crime films shot on location, James Stewart excels as a cynical journalist who hopes for a scoop in covering a woman’s campaign to prove her son innocent of murder, only to become committed to the cause as his investigations proceed. Joe MacDonald’s typically great camerawork and the uniformly fine performances of a strong cast make for gripping drama.

Call Northside 777 followed on from Henry Hathaway’s previously successful docudrama collaborations with the influential Fox producer Louis de Rochemont, such as The House on 92nd Street (1945), by recounting the investigation of a prominent Chicago newspaper journalist, McNeal (James Stewart), into the wrongful prosecution of Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), a Chicago man convicted of murdering a policeman during the Prohibition era.

A mysterious press advertisement, asking the reader ‘to call Northside 777’ with further information, leads McNeal to the prisoner’s mother, who recruits him in her battle to prove her son’s innocence. Based on real events, the film is now seen as one of the most important of the cycle of documentary noirs that marked a turn away from stylised studio melodrama towards a visual style which favoured a greater investment in notions of truthfulness and actuality and a closer proximity to life ‘as it is’.

Hathaway’s film evokes these principles in its opening credit sequence showing a sheaf of hand-typed sheets being turned so as to evoke what could either be a newspaper report or a shooting script. It continues with an introductory section that blends elements of real documentary footage and dramatic reconstruction, which are then linked together on the soundtrack by the controlling narration of an off-screen male voice. J.P. Telotte has argued in his analysis of the documentary noir tradition that there is a ‘compromise’ built into films such as Call Northside 777 through ‘their twin pull to both reveal and dominate truth, [and] to appear transparent while filtering reality through a traditional narrative mechanism.’

This is especially true in two key sequences of the film in which the narrative investigation loses its prevailing sense of historicity. Instead, an appeal to ‘liveness’ is made through the ‘real-time’ representation of the uncovering of important evidence provided by a lie detector and a photographic facsimile machine. The spectator is invited to witness these events ‘as if they were there’ in the room, but in order to substantiate their dramatic significance, Hathaway also chooses to repeatedly intercut between two concurrent narrative spaces so that, as well as observing the neutral act of revelation, we are also invited to identify with the psychologically and politically significant reactions on the part of the film’s fictionalised protagonists.

Another aspect of the documentary noir that features heavily within the film’s mise en scène is the vernacular realism engaged to portray Chicago itself. Call Northside 777 is saturated with now evocative local signage for all manner of public and private institutions of the time that works in conjunction with the depiction of important architectural landmarks to anchor important narrative transitions. These elements are often framed with a more emphatic mobile lens in order to suggest that the film is honing in on a local everyday reality. Once again though, there is an interesting linkage of what Steven N. Lipkin calls ‘indexical footage’ with ‘modelled footage’. The film, for example, links a detached documentary perspective of Chicago’s Polish migrant neighbourhood – much of which is shot on actual location – with other more carefully staged studio scenes characterised by highly mannered noir-like lighting set-ups.

The result is thus a remarkable tension that has a bearing on how one finally reads the film. McNeal’s shift in Call Northside 777 from hard-nosed sensationalist to moral citizen echoes documentary noir’s own broader ethical revision of film noir’s conventional cynicism, but by having the film’s denouement based on the status of the visual document – Wiecek is freed on the basis of a photograph – the spectator is still also inevitably forced to consider the implications of the way in which the film’s very own claim to truth has, in fact, been managed and fabricated by its makers.
Extracted from 100 Film Noirs by Jim Hillier and Alastair Phillips (BFI Screen Guides, 2009). Reproduced by kind permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. ©Jim Hillier and Alastair Phillips

A contemporary review
This story, like Boomerang and The House on 92nd Street, is based on official documents. It is a fact that a Pole called Majczek was wrongly sentenced and after 11 years in jail came out a free man. It is a relief to be able to believe in a story as one does in this one. It is consistent all through, it rings true and maintains an ever-increasing interest to the end. It is exciting, and the twist which provides the denouement is most ingenious. The director has been lucky in his cast. Kasia Orzazewski puts in a lovely performance played with feeling and restraint, and Richard Conte, as Frank, never overacts. It is a clear-cut film, every piece falling slowly into place; there is nothing superfluous. The newspaper office is authentic-looking and one is led to believe that the photography really does depict Chicago as it is.
Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1948

Directed by: Henry Hathaway
©/Presents/Released through: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Produced by: Otto Lang
Screen Play by: Jerome Cady, Jay Dratler
Adaptation by: Leonard Hoffman, Quentin Reynolds
Based on articles by: James P. McGuire
Director of Photography: Joe MacDonald
Special Photographic Effects: Fred Sersen
Film Editor: J. Watson Webb Jr
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler, Mark-Lee Kirk
Set Decorations: Thomas Little, Walter M. Scott
Costumes Designed by: Kay Nelson
Wardrobe Direction: Charles Le Maire
Make-up Artist: Ben Nye
Music: Alfred Newman
Orchestral Arrangements: Edward Powell
Sound: W.D. Flick, Roger Heman
Sound System: Western Electric
Wirephoto by: Associated Press

Executive Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Production Managers: Sam Wurtzel, Raymond Klune
Assistant Directors: Abe Steinberg, Joseph E. Rickards
Script Supervisor: Stanley Scheuer
Camera Operator: Till Gabbani
Grip: Frank Cory Jr
Stills: Jerry Milligan, Paul Russell
Make-up: Dick Smith, Tom Tuttle
Hairstylist: Myrtle Ford
Technical Adviser: James P. McGuire

James Stewart (P. James McNeal)
Richard Conte (Frank Wiecek)
Lee J. Cobb (Brian Kelly)
Helen Walker (Laura McNeal)
Betty Garde (Wanda Skutnik/‘Wanda Siskovich’)
Kasia Orzazewski (Tillie Wiecek)
Joanne De Bergh (Helen Wiecek/‘Helen Rayska’)
Howard Smith (K.L. Palmer)
Moroni Olsen (chairman of parole board)
John McIntire (Sam Faxon)
Paul Harvey (Martin Burns)

Truman Bradley (narrator)
J.M. Kerrigan (Sullivan, the bailiff)
Samuel S. Hinds (Judge Charles Moulton)
George Tyne (Tomek Zaleska)
Richard Bishop (warden)
Otto Waldis (Boris)
Michael Chapin (Frank Jr)
John Bleifer (Jan Gruska)
Addison Richards (John Albertson)
Richard Rober (Larson)
Eddie Dunn (John Bundy, patrolman)
Percy Helton (William Decker, mailman)
Charles Lane (prosecuting attorney)
E.G. Marshall (Rayska)
Norman Mackay, Walter Greaza (detectives)
William Post Jr (police detective)
George Melford, Charles Miller, Joe Forte, Dick Ryan, George L. Spaulding (parole board members)
Lionel Stander (Corrigan)
Jonathan Hale (Robert Winston)
Lew Eckels, George Cisar, Philip Lord, Duke Watson, George Pembroke (policemen)
Freddie Steele, George Turner (holdup men)
Jane Crowley (Anna Felczak)
Robert Karnes (Spitzer)
Larry Blake, Robert B. Williams, Perry Ivins, Lester Sharpe (technicians)
Helen Foster, Dollie Caillet (secretaries)
Abe Dinovitch, Jack Mannick (Polish men)
Henry Kulky (bartender in Drazynski’s place)
Cy Kendall (bartender in Bill’s place)
Wanda Perry, Ann Staunton (telephone operators)
Rex Downing (copy boy)
Edward Peil Jr, Buck Harrington (bartenders)
Stanley Gordon (prison clerk)
Carl Kroenke (guard)
Leonard Keeler (himself)
Arthur Peterson (Keeler’s assistant)
Bill Vendetta (himself, Chicago Times photographer)
Joe Ploski
Peter Seal

USA 1948
111 mins

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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