Call 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.
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.