Call Northside 777


To quote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small.” But what happens if the person trapped between those relentless millstones is actually innocent? What if the pitiless wheels of justice are slowly crushing the wrong man? That’s the conundrum at the heart of Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 (1948). It offers up a premise which is undeniably noir and is frequently referred to as such. I have hung that label on it myself here, not only for the sake of convenience but due to some of its visuals and, of course, that nightmarish scenario on which it is founded. To be honest, it is a socially aware crime picture first and foremost, and I quite understand that some may object to calling it anything else.

The credits are stark, with an austere, no-nonsense quality – crisply typed letters stamped clearly on plain white paper. It’s a matter-of-fact approach mirrored by the voice-over and the documentary tone of the opening, one which takes us back to the final days of the prohibition era in Chicago. In case anyone is unaware of the background, the violence and rampant lawlessness of those days is deftly evoked before attention is focused on one particular killing. The winter of 1932 saw the murder of a beat cop in the parlor of a dingy speakeasy. The bare bones of the affair are laid out before us as well as the arrest and assembly of evidence against the prime suspect, one Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte). Both he and his alleged partner in crime are duly convicted and sentenced to 99 years imprisonment. That’s that, one might say. However, this is only the beginning of our story, and the narrative really kicks in with the appearance of a classified ad in one of the city dailies offering a reward of $5000 for information leading to the exoneration of Wiecek. This catches the eye of newspaper editor Kelly (Lee J Cobb), who asks one of his reporters to look into it. The reporter is a man by the name of McNeal (James Stewart), one of those flip and casual hacks who has yet to hear a sob story he’s not dubious of. What he finds is an old Polish lady (Kasia Orzazewski) scrubbing floors; she’s spent the last eleven long years of her life doing this based on her unwavering faith in her son and her iron certainty that he is no murderer. Her idea was to raise enough money to spark someone’s interest in the case, and if it’s not enough then she plans to keep on skivvying till it is. McNeal is an old pro and has grown a thick hide of cynicism, but he’s not without a heart. True devotion and faith in people is a rare currency and being confronted with it like this plants a seed in what’s left of the reporter’s conscience. What follows is an absorbing search in the past and the present for the truth and a campaign to overturn a miscarriage of justice, starting out as a slow walk and gradually building up to a desperate sprint towards vindication.

Henry Hathaway was a pioneer of the documentary noir approach in the post-war period, with The House on 92nd Street often cited as one of the, if not the, very first examples of this style of filmmaking. While I wouldn’t say I am a fan of the technique on all occasions, it can be powerful and effective when used well. Call Northside 777 is one such occasion, the measured pace and the confidence to allow the natural drama of the story sweep the viewer along is always in evidence. Hathaway was a genuinely great director, a man with a wonderful sense of cinema’s possibilities; he coaxed fine performances from actors time and again and had a way of drawing one into the stories he put up on the screen. The virtual absence of music outside of the credits and the ambient sounds of cheap bars, the assurance of his framing and shot selection, all combine to create suspense from something as mundane as a light flashing on a switchboard, or a needle flickering on a polygraph chart. His spatial awareness is superb too, surely no-one could have better communicated the cold despairing sterility of the prison complex than he did with that shot of endless blank cages opening out onto silent and empty gangways. Then in the latter stages, as the hunt moves to the seedy underbelly of the city, Joe MacDonald’s cinematography conjures fantastic visions of shadow-draped decay.

Without wishing to traipse over old ground yet again, there is such a richness to the screen work of James Stewart after he returned from service in WWII. Capra and It’s a Wonderful Life saw him burrowing into deep reserves and some of that comes through in Call Northside 777 too. Hitchcock and Mann got the very best out of him but Hathaway had him tap into some of his inner conflict as well, just not as far. The narrative requires a shift in his character’s position as the story plays out and it’s to his credit that this is achieved with a smoothness that feels wholly credible. Lee J Cobb could sometimes slip into “big” performances, which though enjoyable can be distracting too. However, he’s nicely restrained as the man whose quiet certainty keeps the investigation moving forward. There’s a playful aspect to his relationship with Stewart, highlighted by his tendency to bend the truth about his soft heart, and Stewart’s making sure he knows he won’t be taken in by it.

Richard Conte was another who was capable of brashness and showiness, but he keeps all of that carefully under wraps. His is a remarkably quiet performance, consistent with a man conditioned to keeping his head down and aware that taking the long view is the best way to survive. His one moment of breaking through that cautious front comes when Stewart has thoughtlessly jeopardized the cocoon of respectability he has painstakingly built around his former family, and even here his anger is contained and dignified.  Helen Walker has a simple role as Stewart’s wife, nothing demanding but she brings warmth to it. There are small parts for John McIntire and E G Marshall among others. I also want to mention the work of Kasia Orzazewski as Conte’s mother. It’s the kind of part where it would have been easy to allow an excess of sentiment to spill out. Yet the actress holds that in check, her pride and grit and sorrow are all apparent but they never overwhelm and consequently she touches the viewer’s heart every bit as much as she did that of Stewart’s skeptical reporter.

Call Northside 777 has long been available on DVD. To the best of my knowledge, the only version on Blu-ray is a German disc, which doesn’t sound as though it represents a major upgrade. Seeing as this is a Fox title , it’s hard to say if there is any possibility of further editions appearing. This is a movie I first saw back in my early teens. It gripped me at the time and the intervening years haven’t altered my opinion of it any. It is a fine picture and well worth a revisit.

36 thoughts on “Call Northside 777

  1. I agree about the documentary noir approach. It really needs to be done well. If done badly it can be very tedious but in this case it’s done extremely well.

    And yeah, those scenes in the prison are superbly done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The documentary style sometimes works for me and sometimes doesn’t. I remember finding both The House on 92nd Street and 13 Rue Madeleine sporadically successful, although I’d need to watch the again to see if my view has shifted at all. However, this film is one I found far more consistent.

      Liked by 1 person

    • We just viewed Stewart in a post WW2 film set in England No Highway in the Sky. He plays a bumbling absent minded engineer in an aeronautical manufacturer. Fine cast of Marlene Detreich, the wonderful …spell check won’t let me type You is Johns…Glynis! Also Jack Hawkins. Brilliantly bumbling.

      Like

  2. Absolutely love this film, one of my top favourites. So well written and totally absorbing from start to finish. Great Chicago locations add a lot too. As you say, not the Richard Conte we became used to. He was so convincing as the quiet innocent man. Also love Betty Garde as the witness who lied – with the wonderful name of ‘Wanda Skutnick’. Best of all ,the scene at the beginning with Kasia Orzazewski whose acting was so real I never forget that scene .
    Thanks for reminding me I need to watch it again!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A perceptive review of this movie, Colin: I have watched it several times and it always grips me. I like your appreciation of Hathaway’s art here. Though apparently he was a hard taskmaster with actors – Robert Duvall couldn’t stand his bullying of the cast when they made TRUE GRIT – he knew how to pull a story together with strong visuals, drama and economy. Like Vienna, I find the opening scene with Kasia Orzazewski very powerful.

    Like

    • I have a few more Hathaway movies I want to look at as it feels like a long time since I watched much of his output. The versatility and comfort in handling a diversity of genres that is to be found in the work of directors like Hathaway, Walsh, Curtiz and so on to be mightily impressive.

      Like

  4. I remember being impressed when I first saw this, though like you the De Rochemont semi-documentary style, especially when accompanied by stentorian narration, is not a favourite with me. I have the Fox DVD and must dig it out. Is this the one with what may be the depiction of what we would now call a fax machine? I was amazed by that as a kid.

    Liked by 1 person

      • It really stuck in my mind. Hathaway was apparently a real SOB so of course producers loved him. But I must go back to his 1940s films at Fox and look again. I like Stewart a lot in his postwar work, the depth you mention (with a really neurotic edge at times) is palpable. In my.mind the use of real locations and shooting with wide angle lenses always makes me pair NORTHSIDE with ANATOMY OF A MURDER, which is a bit bonkers but there you are, living inside my head ‘ain’t for amateurs 😆

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ll have to admit that’s not a connection that would have immediately occurred to me. That said, Preminger’s film did break new ground in its own way, perhaps more in terms of theme and content than technically though. Both movies have a strong sense of social awareness of course.

          Like

  5. This film epitomises the maturity of post-WW2 film-making in Hollywood for me. The most important aspect of the De Rochmont work in that period as far as I’m concerned is the taking of the camera out into real locations rather than studio set-ups. We perhaps take it for granted now but it was a big, bold change that worked so well in ‘film noir’.

    I find “CALL NORTHSIDE 777” an absolutely riveting watch with both Stewart and Conte at the top of their game. But fine understated performances abound generally.

    Although I have seen the film a number of times, your excellent piece, Colin, spurs me to think it is time to pull it off the shelf again.

    Like

    • Jerry, I find the entire movie feels very naturalistic, and I think that’s down to a combination of the location filming, the factual basis of the story and the quiet honesty of the performances.

      Like

  6. I enjoyed your very fine review very much.
    Hathaway in his prime is always worth watching, I’m very fond of 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET as close as we will come to watching a Hitchcock film in CinemaScope.
    Just thought I’d give a nod to Helen Walker her tragic story can be read in full on imdb. Before her career imploded Helen can also be seen in Arthur Lubin’s IMPACT (1949) where she co stars with Brian Donlevy and Ella Raines. Never seen this Noir but it can be viewed online. As Wade Williams now holds the rights I’m hoping for a Film Detective release as the majority of their output comes from the Williams catalogue. Other Noirish titles I hope Film Detective get ’round to are THE WELL (1951) PLEASE MURDER ME (1956) and A DATE WITH DEATH (1959) again from the Williams archives.
    When Helen’s career hit the skids she appeared in a couple of B Flicks and TV episodes. She had the lead in PROBLEM GIRLS (1953) from the once esteemed German director E.A.Dupont who apparently had a drink problem which derailed his career. PROBLEM GIRLS has a B Movie cast to die for and was produced by Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen who I mentioned on the last essay. Sadly PROBLEM GIRLS is not available to view on line,as far as I know. Helen also had a brief but telling supporting role in the Noir classic THE BIG COMBO.

    Like

    • Yes, Helen Walker’s career went south quite suddenly. Her really big role was in Nightmare Alley and she did excellent work in that.
      Impact is an enjoyable film and Image put out a reasonably good DVD long ago. I wouldn’t say no to spruced up Blu-ray though.

      Like

    • I saw Please Murder Me years ago, in a truly awful print. I looked up my review. At the time I described is as being a bit noir-esque and quite ingenious.

      A chance to see Raymond Burr early in his career as something other than a heavy, and Angela Lansbury has some fun with her rôle once she hits her stride. I’d definitely like to see it get a decent release. I’d watch it again.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Colin
    Spent the last few days going through the apartment storage closet looking for my copy of CALL NORTHSIDE 777. No luck, so it must be in the other storage unit. Anyways, congrats on the excellent write-up on said film. It has been at least a decade since I took it in but I recall finding it a wonderful watch. The cast and crew shine and the wonderful use of location make the production a winner, .Again, well done.

    Gord

    Like

  8. On a different note but still on the topic of film noir, I finally got around to watching the Kino Lorber release of Larceny which I bought based on your very favourable review of the movie. And you were right, it’s a very fine little movie. With Shelley Winters’ performance being the highlight.

    Like

    • Your new write-up on the movie can be found here.

      It really is a very good film and hopefully will now be seen by more people. The recent release looks fine and I’m very pleased it has been rescued in such good quality.

      Like

  9. Colin
    Lucky me!!!! Found what looks like a DVD=rip of NORTHSIDE on You-tube tonight. Hopefully I can find time Sunday to get a viewing in.

    Gord

    Like

  10. Concerning Kino Lorber and their revivals of rare Universal International Noir I can highly recommend SHAKEDOWN (1950) directed by Joseph Pevney. Howard Duff is the Homme Fatale in this one and backed by a very strong supporting cast. Duff is such a nasty piece of work in this one that the mobsters (Brian Donlevy and Lawrence Teirney) seem quite mild by comparison. SHAKEDOWN is fast moving and very involving.

    Like

  11. Another very rare Noir available on line in pretty good shape is A CRY IN THE HIGHT (1956) directed by Frank Tuttle for Alan Ladd’s Jaguar Productions. Strong cast including Edmond O Brien,Brian Donlevy, Natalie Wood and Raymond Burr. Been waiting ages for someone to release this one I’m still holding back from watching movies online but perhaps with rare titles like this it’s my only option.

    Like

  12. A film that has been discussed on these pages THE OREGON TRAIL (1959) Directed by Gene Fowler Jr is showing next month on Talking Pictures TV in the UK. The Spanish DVD of some years back was a lovely widescreen transfer but sadly TPTV continue to show 4×3 versions of films that are available on DVD in very good widescreen transfers KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES being a case in point. The trouble is TPTV buy these films in batches so heaven knows what shape they are in THE CANADIANS was repulsive.
    Even their recent CATTLE EMPIRE was in the wrong ratio despite there being stellar versions on DVD & Blu Ray. In their “Saddle Up” series TPTV seem to be running double bills of vintage Fox Westerns Louis King’s excellent POWDER RIVER is another pretty rare item and a very interesting comparison to FRONTIER MARSHALL & MY DARLING CLEMENTINE.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.