In 1945, director Henry Hathaway collaborated with the FBI and 20th Century Fox to make The House on 92nd Street. The film was an obvious handjob to the FBI meant to paint them in a positive light while presenting their twisted uptight version of justice. The pseudo-documentary style would be utilized three years later in Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 (as well as numerous other post-war films). It’s based on the true story of a Chicago reporter who proved that an innocent man was rotting in prison for the murder of a cop 11 years before. This film sorta wavers on the fence between documentary and noir tradition of the 1940s, meaning it never dips into bleak territory or wallows in cynicism as it examines the American judicial system. However, it certainly doesn’t trust ol’ Lady Justice either, the crooked bitch that she is.
James Stewart stars as McNeal, a talented investigative reporter who’s assigned to cover the story of an elderly cleaning woman who has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the release of her son, Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte). She believes he’s been unjustly imprisoned for the murder of cop back in 1932 – the year of prohibition turned the streets of Chicago red with the blood of bootleggers and cops alike. Initially McNeal doesn’t buy this old lady’s sob story about her son being a patsy for the Chicago PD, but as his investigation gradually uncovers a series of inconsistencies and cover-ups, he becomes an avenging angel of justice.
Stewart’s character blends the best aspects of the street-wise gumshoes and naive reporters in over their head that were popular in crime fiction at the time. McLean’s investigation takes him from the uptown of police headquarters to meet with officials to the dark slums of Polish town where a volatile gunsel doesn’t appreciate his snooping. Through it all Stweart keeps his back straight and his suit pressed – a 3-piece knight putting his balls on the chopping block for the downtrodden.
Stewart’s ability to seethe over with frustrated rage is on full display when he confronts the one witness who could turn the case. This is also where Hathaway gets to play with stylistic aesthetics and traditional noir mise en scene. The shadows and production design cage McNeal in this scene. He’s only trying to do with right thing, he has no agenda. Everyone else just sees his efforts as a cheap effort to sell newspapers, and now even the environment seems to have it in for him. This really ticks him off. Stewart is phenomenal, displaying angry reserve like only an actual veteran could. His spirited performance is the main reason to check out the film.
Richard Conte has a small but crucial role as wrongly convicted dimwit Frank Wiecek. Conte, who’s known for playing slick entrepreneurial hoods, gets to show his more down to earth side here. He gets a brief, but strongly sentimental moment at the end that softened even my own calloused heart.
I’m not a big fan of the documentary style procedural, but Stewart’s performance definitely elevates Call Northside 777. What would’ve been a drab matter-of-fact docu-noir becomes a vibrant exploration of corruption within the American justice system. Cops cover their ass. Judges cover their ass. Witnesses cover their ass. And all of them bow down in the face of cash.
The one piece of evidence that turns the case is completely absurd. The way Stewart gets from point A to B is ridiculous, but it does follow in the vein of docu-noirs that exhibit the investigative technology of the time. So it doesn’t really detract from the overall film. Call Northside 777 is currently streaming on Netflix, so check it out while you can.
• This was the first film shot on location in Chicago. Pretty cool trivia right there.