Tag Archives: Jimmy Stewart

Noirvember II #4 – Call Northside 777 (1948)

call-northside-777Call Northside 777 (1948)
Directed by: Henry Hathaway
Written by: Leonard Hoffman, Quentin Reynolds
Starring: James Stewart, Lee J. Cobb, Richard Conte, Helen Walker, Betty Garde

Without a doubt my favorite thing about film noir as a genre is its versatility – with the exception of usually featuring a few trademark elements, the classics of the genre are all so different in scope and size.  Henry Hathaway’s 1948 film Call Northside 777 is a perfect example of this – blending common noir elements with the structure and pacing of a procedural crime investigation. Henry Hathaway directed numerous film noirs during his career, with Call Northside being the most successful of the bunch.  Hathaway is probably most notable for directing one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite films, the Oscar-nominated The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, as well as his work with legendary tough man actor John Wayne, directing him in North to Alaska, Circus World, The Sons of Katie Elder, and his Academy Award-winning performance in 1969’s True Grit.  The legendary director’s filmography consists of more than 60 feature films, featuring some of the greatest American actors to ever live, and spanning a wide variety of genres.

Call Northside 777 stars the always charming James Stewart as P.J. McNeal, an ambitious and brash reporter for the Chicago Times.  McNeal unexpectedly becomes involved with a ten year old murder case involving a young man named Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), who is serving 99 years in prison for the alleged murder of a Chicago police officer.  Wiecek’s mother has put up a $5,000 reward for whoever can present information about the “true” killer’s of the officer, effectively proving her son to be innocent.  After learning of the reward, McNeal’s Chicago Times editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb) quickly assigns P.J. to the case. Though McNeal believes Frank Wiecek to be guilty of the killing, the young reporter reluctantly accepts the job in order to prove himself as an investigative reporter.  Not wanting to be embarrassed or exposed by the investigation, Chicago police and state attorney’s become involved in the case – giving the skeptical McNeal more resistance than expected.  Will P.J. McNeal crack the case and prove young Frank Wiecek innocent, or will resistance from law officials prove too much for the young reporter?  Find out in Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777!

The addition of Call Northside 777 into this year’s Noirvember schedule was a last minute decision based entirely on two things – the film’s star, James Stewart, is one of my all-time favorite actors, and the fact that I had never seen a Henry Hathaway film.  After finding out about the movie’s procedural and investigative nature, I knew that I had made the right decision.  Call Northside 777 is nowhere near as stylistic or suspenseful as other, more-revered classics of the genre, but Hathaway’s film is a highly intriguing and graceful effort.  Northside lacks most of the trademark elements that make film noir such a captivating genre, but makes up for it with solid, uncompromising film-making, and an intriguing true story adaptation.  The procedural style of storytelling (which I have an unabashed love for) works wonders for the film’s mystery, which is small in scope but grand in its implications.  It’s often said that Hathaway never had a distinct style as a director, being known rather as something of a journeyman filmmaker. His apparent lack of a “trademark” style ultimately works in Call Northside 777’s favor – with Hathaway delivering an intriguing, concise, uncomplicated, and grounded investigation in realistic, documentary-like fashion.  James Stewart turns in a typically solid performance as P.J. McNeal, who is incredibly easy to get behind as an investigative journalist.  McNeal remains skeptical for much of the film, completing the job mostly out of obligation to his editor.  Once he’s thrown up against the resistance given by the law, he begins to question his own morals and proves that he is unafraid to go over the heads of those above him. Stewart’s performance goes against his stereotyped “golly-gee” personality, with the veteran actor instead coming off as hardened and sardonic.  All in all, Call Northside 777 isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it’s certainly quite a good one.
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What I Liked:

  • The opening minutes of the film are presented in an unflinching, documentary style that lays the groundwork for the film’s mystery.
  • James Stewart ventures slightly out of his comfort zone, giving a rock solid performance as P.J. McNeal.  
  • Henry Hathaway’s lack of a distinct style allows for the director to focus on what is most important about this film – the storytelling.
  • The pacing is slow, but deliberately so.  Stewart’s McNeal follows all possible leads, reports back to his superiors multiple times, and thwarts resistance efforts by Chicago law enforcement.  Not a minute feels wasted.
  • The scene in the final act with witness Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde) adds some effective and much needed suspense to the story.

What I Didn’t:

  • Lee J. Cobb’s character feels undeveloped to a fault.  At times it feels like he has ulterior motives for assigning McNeal to the case, but this point is never really clearly presented or followed up on.
  • The film’s conclusion, while unique, feels a little too rushed and convenient for my liking.  
  • With the convenient conclusion comes an odd and out of place tonal shift from stark and cynical to suddenly much more hopeful.

With it being a last minute addition to this month’s lineup, I couldn’t have been more surprised with my experience with Call Northside 777.  It’s no doubt a flawed film – largely due to some of its overly-convenient writing – but Henry Hathaway’s focused direction and the attention and respect paid to procedure and investigation makes this a more than worthy film noir.  James Stewart brings a good performance to the film, serving as the perfect leading man in a performance-driven piece.  It won’t ever be considered to be one of the greats of the film noir genre, but it is a solid crime film with an incredibly intriguing mystery at its core.  Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 is recommended.

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December Theme – John Ford (An Introduction)

John_Ford,_1946
If you aren’t somebody who is interested in film history and the significant players in its development, you may be wondering who exactly John Ford is, and what makes him so worthy of an entire month-long feature.  You may often hear him described as being a difficult, if unpretentious, and old-fashioned director.  Ford was an incredibly intense and idiosyncratic man who even managed to occasionally alienate even those closest to him.  John Ford smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish when he was permitted to, but was an extremely humble and sensitive man.  John Ford was and remains to this very day a mystery to many people, but the one thing that critics and historians alike are sure of it’s that he’s a legendary figure in the business, and one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live.  

Ford most famously made his name known through the direction of dozens of western and dramatic films, spanning from the early silent era to the mid-1960’s.  The great director is the only filmmaker in history to win four Academy Awards for Best Director (The Informer in 1935, The Grapes of Wrath in 1940, How Green Was My Valley in 1941, and The Quiet Man in 1952).  His frequent collaborators included famous western stars John Wayne and both Harry Carey Sr. and Harry Carey Jr., Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Maureen O’Hara.

The films of John Ford often had themes that romanticized the old west, and were incredibly patriotic and passionate about America.  As far as direction, he greatly preferred the use of long, static shots as opposed to complex camera movements, which he felt were too laborious and time consuming.  Ford was never afraid to sacrifice parts of his work for the greater good, and was known to make last-minute changes to many of his scripts, proving he was never “married” to any one idea.  He preferred his actors known the ins and outs of their characters, and was not particularly fond of rehearsals.  Though Ford favoured a more deliberate pacing and classic approach to direction, his films are far from boring or standard in any way.  The man absolutely knew his way around a camera, and had both the critical praise and financial success to prove it.

John Ford’s most famous films include the incredible and highly influential Stagecoach, the Oscar-winning adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the beautiful and controversial The Searchers, and my personal favorite film of his, the “film that beat Citizen Kane” How Green Was My Valley.  His influence has been felt for years, and his films continue to amaze and inspire generations.  Some of the directors who admired the man and were influenced by his films and style include my favorite director Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Steven Spielberg, and Orson Welles.

The schedule for my John Ford retrospective month looks as follows:

#1 – The Informer (1935) – December 1

#2 – The Long Voyage Home (1940) – December 4

#3 – They Were Expendable (1945) – December 7

#4 – My Darling Clementine (1946) – December 10

#5 – Fort Apache (1948) – December 13

#6 – She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) – December 16

#7 – Rio Grande (1950) – December 19

#8 – The Quiet Man (1952) – December 22

#9 – The Searchers (1956) – December 25

#10 – The Wings of Eagles (1957) – December 28

*The schedule is subject to change, with Christmas break looming.  If I have to eliminate any films from the marathon, I’ll be sure to post about it.  

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Smith_goesMr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Sidney Buchman (based on The Gentleman from Montana by Lewis R. Foster)
Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Harry Carey

I had the incredible pleasure of seeing Frank Capra’s remarkable Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on the big screen this afternoon, courtesy of Cineplex theaters’ Classic Film Series.  It was my second time seeing the incredibly important and very timely Mr. Smith, and it inspired me to do some impromptu writing on the film.  To my surprise, I was one of only three people in attendance for the screening, something that disappoints me greatly on the eve of Canada’s own Election Day.  I hope everybody reading this gets something out of it, and decides to both see this important film and vote in tomorrow’s Federal election.

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James Stewart as Jeffrey Smith in Frank Capra’s Oscar-winning Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Frank Capra, one of America’s greatest directors in the 1930’s and 1940’s (his modern-day equivalent would be somebody like Steven Spielberg), coupled with the handsome, charming, and legendary actor James Stewart (whom Tom Hanks is often compared to) created three terrific and influential films together, including holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, Oscar-winner You Can’t Take it With You, and this film.  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tells the incredible story of a hero to the youth of America taking on the might of big business and all those who fall under their power.  The film sees James Stewart’s wholesome Jefferson Smith be hand-picked to represent his state as a Senator in Washington, where he is quickly taken under the wing of Senator Joseph Paine (played by Claude Rains).  Paine and his corrupt partner Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) look to take advantage of Smith’s lack of political knowledge and his wholesome image and attitude in order to quietly pass a dam-building scheme held within an important appropriations bill framed by the corrupt Taylor.  When nothing goes according to plan for the duo of Paine and Taylor, the two look to defame Jeff Smith’s image at any cost, having him kicked out of the Senate.  The titular Mr. Smith, with help from his secretary Clarissa Saunders (played wonderfully by the incomparable Jean Arthur) hold a filibuster in the Senate as a last-ditch effort to save the land in Smith’s home state, and protect the interests of American’s everywhere.  

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James Stewart pictured in the film’s famous filibuster scene, one of the greatest in American film history.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a remarkably written film, never slowing down for a minute and never going out of its way to pander to the audience.  Though the film may be seen as overly sentimental or patriotic by cynical audience members, Mr. Smith is a relentlessly romantic and passionate film about the importance of freedom and the absence of corruption in the political process.  It perfects the classic David and Goliath story that has been told time and time again, and yet still feels fresh, inventive, and meaningful.  Screenwriter Sidney Buchman puts his heart and soul into this film, and it can be felt on-screen by Frank Capra’s impeccable direction and the terrific acting from the entire cast.  James Stewart as Jeffrey Smith is a revelation, and perhaps one of the greatest performances of the era, if not of all-time.  The filibuster scene – the real showcase for Stewart’s abilities – brought tears to my eyes, as did some of Jeff Smith’s passionate speeches given throughout the movie.  Backing up Jimmy Stewart are the incredibly talented Claude Rains (known most famously for his performance in Casablanca three years later), Edward Arnold, and Harry Carey, all of whom put in very good performances, with Rains and Carey both being nominated for Academy Awards for their supporting performances.  Jean Arthur’s performance is almost on-par with Stewart’s in that she’s an incredibly strong woman, something that was rare for Hollywood at the time.  Arthur’s Clarissa Saunders never sinks to just being the romantic interest of our lead character, but instead coaches Smith into being a powerhouse of a politician, supporting him from behind the scenes.  The writing, direction, and acting resulted in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington being nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and a film nearly 80-years old still holding up to this very day.

I can’t stress how important Capra’s Mr. Smith is, especially at this point in time.  It’s a film about the little man standing up to the bullies, liars, and cowards in big business and in politics, and standing up for everything he believes in.  No matter what odds are stacked against him, he never gives up, and most importantly never gives in to the corruption going on all around him.  We could all learn a lot from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and I hope that a film such as this can still inspire the masses to persevere no matter how bad things can look sometimes.  It is a film so full of hope and passion in a time where we need it the most.  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a masterpiece of American cinema, and one of my all-time favorite films.  I cannot possibly recommend it highly enough.  Highest recommendation.

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