Longtime readers of my site are aware of my love/hate relationship with Jimmy Stewart. It isn’t that I hate him, I just find a lot of his iconic roles to be overhyped. With that, I decided to devote a day to him as part of my Summer Under the Stars series to move away from the Jimmy Stewart stigma I have. Call Northside 777 was my choice because of its noir connections. The connections are loose – it isn’t nearly as noirish as ones before – but this is an engaging and lustrous documentary/mystery with Stewart playing a darker, cynical character than his enduring role as George Bailey. A bit slow at times, I found myself riveted to Stewart’s push to solve the caper, and found myself surprised by his performance.
P.J. McNeal is a reporter for a Chicago newspaper. His boss (Lee J. Cobb) discovers an advertisement in the paper offering $5,000 for information on the case of a murdered cop that could exonerate the murderer. Anyone with information is asked to call Northside 777. Intrigued, McNeal discovers the murderer’s mother is offering the reward, convinced that her son is innocent. With a hefty dose of skepticism McNeal starts to investigate the case only to come to the sickening conclusion that an innocent man may be rotting in prison.
Director Henry Hathaway is predominately known for his Westerns with John Wayne, so I was shocked to witness what a competent director he is within the mystery/suspense genre. The movie has basic connections to film noir, insofar as it has narration and focuses on a cynical man (although McNeal is far more optimistic than typical noir men); while filmed on location in Chicago, there aren’t any fascinating lighting concepts or use of shadow. If anything, the movie falls into the documentary/police procedural propaganda that came out in the late forties; the closest comparison to is The House on 92nd Street. In both films you have a pro-America slant, acknowledgement that this is a true story made for film (the opening credits are Northside’s shooting script), and by the end the movie proves that a particular American institution – whether it be American journalism or the police – have always been right and saves the day. None of this is bad, in case you were curious; in fact I enjoyed this far more than 92nd Street.
Jimmy Stewart thoroughly surprised me as P.J. McNeal. He’s a man whose heard “I’m innocent” far too much to believe there is innocence at all in the world. As he interviews, or interrogates, the various people in convicted murderer Frank Wiecek’s life, he never hides his indifference to their claims. He’s condemned Frank as much as the nation has, and to him it’s all about the “angle” he can milk. He presents a fairly realistic portrait of reporters that hasn’t changed since the movie’s creation. “If it bleeds it leads” remains the adage and McNeal believes in that. His motivation is “I need an angle to hit the public with;” he wants to write the story and move on. To him, it’s unimportant whether Frank is guilty or innocent, McNeal wants to shape the story for maximum sales potential. McNeal is reminiscent of the prosecutors he ends up fighting against; all they want is an open and shut case, and they’re willing to coerce witnesses to get that. It’s no different from McNeal changing the perceptions of Wiecek’s family to sell a newspaper. When he starts investigating the case, he understands the shades of gray that come from covering an unpopular angle: the murdered cop “could have a mother who scrubbed floors, too!”
It would be easy for the script to employ a black and white mentality considering the pro-America stance that crops up. (Or at least a stance that the great American reporter can do what the justice system fails at.) Instead, the well-written script by Jerome Cady and Jay Dratler paints everyone in various shades of gray to play off McNeal’s assumptions. He sees everyone for their lies, their inner darkness; he’s incredibly cynical about humanity, which only makes his transformation life-altering to him and the audience. He discovers his moral compass, and can’t let Frank down. McNeal turns into a requisite Jimmy Stewart good-guy by the end, but it actually expands out from a very dark place and never feels contrived.
He’s one of a solid ensemble cast that plays up on the diversity within the Chicago area at the time. For 1948, it’s wonderful to see such diversity, which is growing rarer in films today. Richard Conte is quiet and self-sacrificing as Frank; a man planning on serving 99 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Frank is a martyr for the failure of the justice system, and yet he’s got a noble heart in his willingness to divorce his wife in order to spare her and his son the embarrassment of being his family. Kasia Orzazewski is affecting in the role of Frank’s devoted mother, Tillie. Tillie could have been the dame waiting for Frank, instead she’s his slavishly loving mother who’s willing to scrub floors to raise money for his defense; a similar martyr figure. McNeal’s wife, Laura (Helen Walker), digests Tillie’s character as such: “It catches your imagination, whether she’s right or not. I want her to be right.” Her final scene with Stewart is particularly heartbreaking as she realizes that without Frank, and without McNeal coming to visit her about the case, she has no friends or family to rely on. Her devotion must turn away from Frank to God, and in the end – though it remains unstated – you have to believe that her faith in everything has been restored.
It did feel long-winded in parts, but that’s a minor quibble when you look at the finished product. Call Northside 777 is a wonderful social drama with light noir touches. Jimmy Stewart, Richard Conte, and Kasia Orzazewski create a trio of indelible performances and the script is beyond intriguing. I’m not ready to embrace Jimmy Stewart, but he certainly captured my attention.
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