Call Northside 777 (1948)

Chicago reporter P.J. McNeal re-opens a ten year old murder case.

A Story Of a City

5 April 2001 | by telegonus (brighton, ma) – See all my reviews

This is the last, and in my opinion the best, of director Henry Hathaway’s so-called ‘numbers’ trilogy (the other two are House 0n 92nd Street and 13 Rue Madeline, both badly dated now). It was made at the height of the so-called semi-realist or semi-documentary movement in American film-making, which was just peaking (and soon to decline) when this picture came out. Filmed on location in and around Chicago, it tells the story of a newspaperman who comes to believe in the innocence of a convicted criminal when the man’s aged mother places an ad in the paper asking for information about the by now almost forgotten crime her son was accused of.

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At first cynical, the reporter comes to believe the man’s story, and arranges for him submit to a lie-detector test, which he passes. In short time the hunt is on the one person who can help prove the man’s innocence. This is a very gutsy film for its day, and along with the much inferior The Naked City, released at about the same time, it is the one that makes the best use of urban locations. We see a long-gone Chicago, a city of brick and cement buildings that echo with the footsteps of busy men in heavy overcoats on their way to the ‘office’. It is also a city with a huge, almost underground immigrant population, which we see only glimpses of early in the film, but whose members take on increasing prominence as the story progresses. The last part of the movie, with the reporter taking to the streets in tough authentic Polish neighborhoods, contains some of the best, most evocative and sympathetic views of the streets, saloons and dingy walk-up apartments of the urban poor I’ve ever seen. No pity is asked for and none is given. This is simply the way some people live; by beer, boiler-maker, song and crude humor. There is warmth, too, in these tight-knit communities, with their air of familiarity and loyalty, their rules of conduct unknowable to the outsider.

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Hathaway is often seen as a plain, almost prosaic director, even at his best. In Call Northside 777 his steady journeyman hand is most welcome. He shows us an American city landscape quite different from what one normally finds in movies. We are in a terrain very much of the interior, the heartland, an America most easterners scarcely know of, its cities just as big and bustling as any on the Atlantic seaboard, but also quite different in tone, style and flavor. The film captures this aspect its midwestern city to perfection.

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Engrossing Crime Drama

8/10
Author: harry-76 from Cleveland, Ohio
15 April 2000

“Call Northside 777” is a well made crime drama shot in semi-documentary style. It benefits from a solid script, and tight direction (by Henry Hathaway). It also features a naturalistic James Stewart as a sharp investigative reporter; much of the success of the film is due to his thoroughly convincing performance. A fine support cast includes Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb and Helen Walker. What ages the film a bit is the now somewhat dated technology featured (a lengthy episode in which the lie detector is treated in detail, along with certain photographic reproduction and transference techniques). Yet, one can view these aspects as historically accurate representations, and enjoy the total production, which is on a commendably high level.

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Solid, Well-Made Forties Crime-Thriller With Excellent Performance From Stewart

6/10
Author: ShootingShark from Dundee, Scotland
12 February 2006
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

McNeal is a reporter with a Chicago newspaper, investigating the conviction of two men for the murder of a policeman eleven years previously. Sceptical at first, he gradually becomes convinced of their innocence, but his column’s campaign to highlight the injustice meets with hefty opposition from local government and police.

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Based on a true story, this is an extremely influential crime picture in terms of its style; there is neither any melodrama or film-noir stylings. Instead, it presents itself with simple straightforward sequences, authentic settings (it was one of the first Hollywood pictures to be shot chiefly on location) and naturalistic performances from the talented cast. As such, it was the model for hundreds of cop movies and TV shows in the fifties, and even though some of the plot devices seem dated – a polygraph test, a spy’s camera, a photo enlargement – it still packs a punch. You want the wronged men to be exonerated, if only because all the city’s political power and hired muscle seems to be against them. Typically, Stewart is the core of the film, his solid performance the epitome of audience identification, but there is strong support from Conte, Cobb and Garde (as a memorable Polish-American lush who holds the key to the case) and don’t miss the bits by Marshall and Stander. Arguably the best film by the prolific Hathaway (the other contenders being The Lives Of A Bengal Lancer, Kiss Of Death and The Desert Fox) and a solid, old-fashioned, no-nonsense crime story.

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