Call Northside 777 (1948) Henry Hathaway

20th Century Fox produced a series of semi-documentary film noirs in the late 1940’s including “Boomerang!,” “Kiss of Death,” “House on 92nd Street” and “Call Northside 777,” the last three directed by perennial hard ass Henry Hathaway. Hathaway was a studio director, a craftsman whose work was devoid of complexity, straightforward and took no crap from anyone (see my interview with Dennis Hopper biographer Peter L. Winkler who talks about Hathaway’s battle with young know it all Hopper and how he single handedly blackballed Hopper from Hollywood films.). Despite any lack of pretension in his work Hathaway directed some fine film noirs. In addition to those previously mentioned he made “The Dark Corner” and “Niagara.”

Based on a true story, “Call Northside 777” tells the tale of Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), a Polish-American falsely accused of murdering a police officer. (1) After spending 11 years in jail for a crime he did not commit, his story is assigned to Chicago Times news reporter Mickey McNeal (Jimmy Stewart) when it comes to the attention of his editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb). Kelly had spotted a notice in the classified ad column, a $5,000 reward for information leading to the killer of a police officer back in 1932, 11 years ago, during the height of the prohibition era. McNeal follows up on the story and discovers it is Frank Wiecek’s mother, Tillie (Kasia Orzazeski) a scrub woman in a office building who put up the reward saving her paltry salary ever since her son’s conviction. McNeal follows up with a visit to the Illinois State Pen where he talks to Frank only to find his story full of dead ends that cannot be proven. Frank though seems resigned to his fate, he will be spending the rest of his life in prison. Frank even told his wife Helen (Joanne De Berg) to divorce him and marry someone else so their son will have a full and happy family and not be haunted by his father’s past. After McNeal writes about the family, exposing their current lives, an incensed Frank demands they be left alone and wants the entire investigation stopped accusing McNeal of writing his story only for the newspapers’ circulation gains. He rather spend the rest of his life in prison than subject his kid and ex-wife to public scrutiny.

McNeal’s attitude toward Frank begins to change and he comes to believe Frank was unjustly convicted. The problem now it proving it since most of the information supporting his innocence is circumstantial and will not convince a parole board to free him. The key to breaking through in proving Frank’s innocence is the one witness, Wanda Shutnik (Helen Garde), the owner of the speakeasy where the shooting of the police officer occurred. Wanda identified Frank, and another innocent man, as the shooters, and even after all these years won’t change her story. As McNeal digs deeper he finds inconsistencies in police files and Helen’s statements about when she first saw Frank. The breaking Helen Shutnik’s story convinces the parole board to release Frank. He is hastily reunited with his son, ex-wife and her husband, an unbilled and very young E.G. Marshall, who promises Frank he can see the boy anytime he wants. This all happens as McNeal looks on in the foreground.

Filmed entirely on location in Chicago where the real story happened, using actual locations, like the then new Statesville Prison where McNeal interviews the other man arrested for the murder of the police officer. This scene is nicely shot as we watch McNeal walk along the catwalk of this gigantic circular cell-block. Additionally, adding to the local flavor was the use of locals Polish-Americans living in the community.

James Stewart had just finished a seven week engagement on Broadway taking over the role of Elwood P. Dowd in the Mary Chase play”Harvey.” The play,which had been running on Broadway since 1944,was a huge hit with Frank Fay originating the role of Dowd. The play’s run ended 1,775 performances later in 1949. For seven weeks in 1947, Stewart took on the role in what would be a successful attempt to convince Universal Studio he was the man to take on the role in the film version. It worked and became one of Stewart’s signature roles.

Stewart’s Mickey McNeal is an amalgamation of two journalists who worked on the actual real life case, one was James P. McGuire who worked on the film as a consultant. McNeal was one of the first cynical, darker characters Stewart would portray. A side of his screen persona he would continue to pursue in more derisive roles later on in films with Alfred Hitchcock (“Rope,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo”) and in a series of Anthony Mann westerns. This role was also one of eight real life character’s Stewart portrayed in his career, the others being Charles Lindbergh (“The Spirit of St. Louis”), Glenn Miller (“The Glenn Miller Story”), Monty Stratton (The Stratton Story) David Marshall “Carbine” Williams (“Carbine Williams”) Tom Jeffords (“Broken Arrow”) and Wyatt Earp (“Cheyenne Autumn”).

Richard Conte’s role is somewhat restricted by the script. He is in prison for most of the film and overall his role is not very large still he does a fine job. Lee J. Cobb makes for a perfect newspaper editor with his cigar and gruff, fatherly like figure. Cobb is almost incapable of giving a bad performance. Helen Walker is fine in a comforting role as Stewart’s wife. Walker had a tragic life dying at the age of forty eight. In 1946, she was involved in a serious auto accident where one person, a hitchhiker, died. Walker was charged with drunken driving and was subjected to a civil lawsuit by another passenger. She was later cleared of the charges however her career was damaged and though she continued to work her days on the fast track were over.

Others in the cast include John McIntire, Lionel Stander, character actor Charles Lane along with Al Capone and John Dillinger in newsreel footage. The stark effectively brilliant black and white cinematography is thanks to Joe MacDonald who also makes great use of the Chicago urban locations. You also get a nice feel, especially in the early scenes, for the city’s immigrant population and blustery cold weather. The film displays quite a bit of what was then modern technology as used by the police and Stewart’s newspaper in helping to prove the prisoner’s innocence. A lie detector, photo copier and darkroom photo enlargement techniques all contributed to providing evidence of Frank Wiecek’s innocence.

The film is based on newspaper articles by James P. McGuire  and Jack McPhaul, both men worked for The Chicago Times, with a screenplay by Jerome Cady and Jay Dratler. Reviews at the time were generally favorable and the film was big hit. With “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Magic Town,” his first two films since returning from military duty not financial successes at the box office, “Call Northeast 777” was Stewart’s first big hit since the war.

Notes:

(1)  Here is a link to the real life story of Joseph M. Majczek whose wrongful conviction was the basis for the film.

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12 comments on “Call Northside 777 (1948) Henry Hathaway

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    Terrific piece here John on a semi-classic of the genre, and one of the films that has defined the work and style of Henry Hathaway. As you note Hathaway is famous for the short series of semi-documentary films he crafted at Fox, and this includes the equally distinguished HOUSE ON 92nd STREET. He collaborated with the gifted lensman Joseph McDonald (who also worked with him on NIAGARA)filming a large part of the picture in state penitentiaries and in the dingier back alleys of Chicago. The film is vigurous, atmospheric and well-acted by the distinguished cast.

    Buffo review.

    Happy Easter to you and Dorothy, John!

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    • John Greco says:

      Sam,

      The on location shoot gives this film a nice touch of realism. Hathaway did similar location work in KISS OF DEATH only in NYC. MacDonald has done some fine work behind the camera on many memorable films.

      Happy Easter to you, Lucille and the kids!

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  2. KimWilson says:

    John, I’ve never even heard of this one. You must be digging them up from the really dusty archives. When I read the title I thought it was about one of the communities in Cincinnati–it obviously wasn’t. LOL. Informative post.

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    • John Greco says:

      I blew the dust off a library copy (LOL). Seriously, i think you should try and track this down. It definitely not an obscure film. 20th Century Fox released it on DVD a few years back.

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  3. R. D. Finch says:

    John, you did a great job on this film, examining it from all angles. It’s one of several postwar films produced by Fox that dealt with real stories of crime or espionage, given a noirish, quasi-documentary slant, often involving Hathaway as director and/or Louis de Rochemont as producer and using real locations, perhaps inspired by the Italian neorealists. Of all of them, though, I like this the best. It has more subtlety and less speechifying than the very similar “Boomerang!” directed by Elia Kazan, about an unjustly accused man cleared by a district attorney. Hathaway’s workman-like, low-key style suits the material well.

    If any one thing distinguishes this from the similar films of the time, it’s the presence of the wonderful James Stewart, here combining the opposite qualities of cynicism and idealism that he would continue to mine in many of the later films you name. (As you point out, the rest of the cast is top-rate too. Even Lee J. Cobb curbs his tendency to overemote.) Even though this was one of the first films to expose the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, sadly such cases of people convicted of serious crimes on questionable evidence continue to this day. It is shown occasionally, but not often, on TCM.

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    • John Greco says:

      R.D. – Workman like is a good phrase to describe Hathaway’s work. He gets the job done with no flash or style, straight forward directing just what is needed for this kind of film. Stewart is terrific here and Cobb is good. For me even when he over acts, which he does, I always like his performances.

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  4. Rick29 says:

    John, very nice review of my favorite quasi-documentary film produced in Hollywood in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Chicago locations made me feel like I was there with Stewart’s character as he probed deeper into his investigation. Glad you mentioned the prison scene. For me, the most iconic scene is the one of Frank’s mother scrubbing the floors alone at night in the empty office building. That’s the image that comes to mind when I think of this film. You make a great point about this being the official start of the cynical Stewart persona that graced his amazing 1950s films (love the Mann and Hitchcock pics).

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Rick and sorry about the late response. I love the location work on this film. The opening scenes with the snowy, windy weather make you feel like you are right there in Chicago. The two other scenes you mention are also some of the best. I admire Stewart’s work more every time I see him. Thanks again!

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  5. Chris Erskine says:

    Just saw this film on TCM. I agree with all the above comments. I was particularly impressed by the use of real office locations that revealed the outside world through the windows. A good example being the publishers’ office and the lift bridge. I am wondering if you who was the artist on display in the publishers office. It is a huge city landscape of Chicago.

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    • John Greco says:

      Chris,

      One is this film’s highlight’s that added to the realism is it being shot on location in, as you mention, “real office locations” and elsewhere. As for the artist, I’m sorry to say I don’t know who it is. Thanks and welcome!

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  6. Judy says:

    John, I’ve just seen this film, as it turned up on TV in the UK, and remembered you had reviewed it. The print looked absolutely pristine and I must agree that the camerawork is great. The street scenes and long shots of the newsroom add such a lot to the atmosphere, and the sight of all those little cells in the jail is a very powerful scene, as you say.

    I did find some of the scenes with Stewart and Helen Walker a bit too sweet, as they sit at home doing jigsaws, which they are obviously just doing in order to create a visual parallel with his work… wow, it’s hard to fit these pieces together, etc! Plus the newspaper’s editor is a bit too saintly to be true. But still a very good and hard-hitting film.

    Thanks for posting the link to the real-life story – I was wondering what happened to the other wrongly imprisoned guy, and that article revealed that he had to rot in jail for another five years before he finally got out too! The link in your article is actually broken now – the new one is

    http://www.law.northwestern.edu/legalclinic/wrongfulconvictions/exonerations/il/joseph-m-majczek.html

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    • John Greco says:

      Judy,

      Thanks for adding the updated link. I actually was not expecting much when I first decided to watch this film, not sure why, but it was much better than I expected. You’re right about the homespun Stewart/Walker scenes and I like your comment about the newspaper editor being a little too “saintly to be true.” Thanks

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