Saturday Night Cinema: Call Northside 777

Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema is the 1948 docu-noir movie crime drama, ‘Call Northside 777 ‘ starring the indefatigable Jimmy Stewart.

Discovering that a man convicted of a murder over a decade before may in fact be innocent, a Chicago journalist embarks on an investigation in search of the truth. This drama was based upon the true story of journalist Jim McGuire and wrongly convicted prisoner Joe Majczek.

In an early scene of the 1948 film Call Northside 777, Jimmy Stewart, who plays a reporter at the Chicago Times, interviews a scrubwoman who placed a classified ad in the paper offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the exoneration of her son, who is serving ninety-nine years in prison for killing a cop. The scrubwoman says she saved her pennies for ten years to raise the reward money, and she asks Jim McNeil, Stewart’s character, if he can help her. He replies: “I’m only a reporter. I just write the story.”

Shot on location, the cinematography is stunning, capturing Chicago’s dark, grim neighborhoods. And pay attention to the details like the sounds of the city — the clanging of the streetcars and the constant low roar from passing trains.

…..what finally impresses about the film is Stewart’s gradual development from sceptical scoop-hunter to a committed crusader for justice. Add to that the suggestion that the police are less than willing to be proved wrong in their conviction of Conte (it was a cop that he allegedly killed), and you have an absorbingly intelligent thriller. (Timeout)

Call Northside 777
Published: February 19, 1948

In the same style and in much the same pattern of its previously successful “Boomerang,” which told how a daring stat’s attorney proved the innocence of a man he was supposed to convict, Twentieth Century-Fox has made a picture which, with equal fascination, describes how a Chicago newspaper reporter does the same thing for a man who has long been in jail. “Call Northside 777” is its title and it came to the Roxy yesterday. If the points of similarity are too obvious, try not to reflect upon them.

For “Northside” or “777” (that title is much too long) is a slick piece of modern melodrama in anybody’s book. It combines a suspenseful mystery story with a vivid, realistic pictorial style, and it has some intriguing arcana in it on the gentlemen of the press. If some of its newspaper techniques are not entirely in line and if its climactic evidence is flimsy, blame that on the scriptwriters’ awe. The Hollywood people are usually overwhelmed by the mightiness of the press.

Not that the likelihood is farfetched that a practicing newspaper man should suddenly become extremely curious about an ancient and closed murder case. A thing such as that, here reported, is supposed to have occurred in Chicago, no less. And not that this newshound, once scenting a miscarriage of justice in the air, might not pursue such stale and cold clues as could lead him to a startling exposé. Such things have frequently happened in the experience of the American press.

And as the story is patiently unfolded in this remarkably photogenic film, with lie-detectors and miniature cameras and telephoto equipment to dress it up, it looks altogether plausible and highly exciting, to boot. Furthermore, it is winningly acted by James Stewart as the reporter-sleuth, Richard Conte as the victim of injustice and Lee J. Cobb as a quizzical editor. It is also impressively supported by the well-turned performances of Betty Garde, Kasia Orzazewski and Joanne De Bergh, among others, in lesser roles.

In short, there is nothing in this picture except a whopping shortcut towards the end—and a few false parochialisms—to keep it from banging the bell. That piece of eleven-year-old evidence which the newspaper man unfolds to prove the innocence of his convict is as gauzy as the background of the case and as much of an insult to the intelligence of a reporter as it is to the virtue of the state. But then, as we say, the scriptwriters were obviously in awe. And they had to end their picture. And this happened, in Chicago, anyhow.

CALL NORTHSIDE 777; screen play by James Cady and Jay Dratler; adaptation by Leonard Hoffman and Quentin Reynolds; based on the article by James P. McGuire; directed by Henry Hathaway; produced by Otto Lang for Twentieth Century-Fox Pictures. At the Roxy.
McNeal . . . . . James Stewart
Frank Wiecek . . . . . Richard Conte
Brian Kelly . . . . . Lee J. Cobb
Laura McNeal . . . . . Helen Walker
Wanda Skutnik . . . . . Betty Garde
Tillie . . . . . Kasia Orzazewski
Helen Wiecek-Rayska . . . . . Joanne De Bergh
Palmer . . . . . Howard Smith
Parole Board Chairman . . . . . Moroni Olsen
Sam Faxon . . . . . John McIntire
Martin Burns . . . . . Paul Harvey