Call Northside 777 (1948)
“Reporter Uncovers New Clues In Wiecek Case”
Director: Henry Hathaway
Cast: James Stewart, Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb
Synopsis: Chicago reporter P.J. McNeal re-opens a ten year old murder case.
The bold and stark proclamation in the credits of Call Northside 777 that ‘This is a True Story,’ was, for once, pretty close to the truth and represents one of the few times that a Hollywood movie of its era stuck fairly closely to the facts. Only the key piece of evidence used to free an innocent man imprisoned for murder is a fabrication inserted to introduce an element of suspense to the film’s finale. And while the issue of falsified evidence and police corruption is fudged — which is hardly surprising given the era in which the movie was made — some veiled references to the subject do manage to sneak through — even if they are rebuffed with a robust defence of the ‘finest police force in the world.’ The character of Frank W. Wiecek was based on Joseph Majczek, a 24-year-old man accused of the murder of a policeman in December 1932. The major contribution to Majczek’s incarceration was the evidence of witness Vera Walush, the proprietress of a speakeasy who identified him as one of the killers. It later transpired that Walush made the identification under duress from the police, who threatened to arrest her if she refused to testify. In the movie, the motivation of Walush’s alter ego, Wanda Skutnik is never satisfactorily explained, although the threatening influence of mobsters is suggested as the most likely reason.
James Stewart plays P. J. McNeal, a reporter for the Chicago Times, who’s assigned the task of following up on an advert placed in the newspaper which offers $5,000 for information about the killers of a police officer eleven years earlier. McNeal does so only on the insistence of his editor, Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb), and is openly sceptical about the innocence of Frank W. Wiecek (Richard Conte), the man who was imprisoned for the crime. It turns out that the ad was placed by Wiecek’s mother (Kasia Orzazewski) who has religiously saved any spare cash earned from her job as a cleaner for the past eleven years. Poor Mrs Wiecek is so thrilled by the attention the Times reporter is paying to her story that she completely fails to see just how sceptical he is. In fact, McNeal’s initially unswerving cynicism marks him out as something of a douche, and it’s not missed by her son, who finally shakes McNeal out of his sceptical stupor when he tells the reporter he no longer wants him to write about the case.
The key witness in the case against Wiecek and his friend Tomek Zaleska (George Tyne) back in 1933 was speakeasy proprietress Wanda Skutnik. She identified both men as the killers, even though two other witnesses insisted that the accused weren’t the guilty men. McNeal realises that if he’s to have any hope of freeing Wiecek, he must find this woman. But 11 years is a long time, and Skutnik, apparently never the most savoury of individuals, appears to have disappeared. Undaunted, McNeal embarks on an extensive tour of all the run-down Polish drinking holes in Chicago in the hope of locating her, but when he finally tracks her down she stubbornly refuses to reveal why she fingered Wiecek, and refuses to change her testimony even when she learns of the $5000 reward posted by Wiecek’s mother.
Although it inevitably looks dated today — even with the documentary-style narration kept to a minimum — Call Northside 777 does a good job of showing the kind of gritty resolve and resourcefulness the real life reporter James McGuire must have demonstrated when pursuing the case. In a performance that possibly isn’t one of his best, Stewart nevertheless convincingly undergoes the transformation from hard-bitten sceptic to driven crusader, and is ably supported by equally strong performances from the likes of Lee J. Cobb and Richard Conte. Call Northside 777 also benefits from the use of authentic locations, which was still a rarity back in 1948 — even though some, such as the incredible cylindrical interior of the Illinois State Prison, seem strangely under-populated and preternaturally quiet. While the movie doesn’t shy away from exploring the political dimensions of its story, the manner in which it skirts around the issue of police corruption is a little disappointing, if understandable, as is the clumsy last-minute introduction of that new-fangled technology, which pretty much makes the rest of McNeal’s efforts redundant, and the failed attempt to generate a level of suspense in the final scenes that simply doesn’t exist.
(Reviewed 30th November 2013)