Probably most famous as an early example of Hollywood location-based shooting, Call Northside 777 is interesting both as an historical artifact and as a standard fiction. While assertively based on “real events,” it is very far from being a documentary—at least, not the kind of documentary the filmmakers might have thought they were making.
The title refers to an ad placed in the Chicago Times by charwoman Tillie Wiecek (Kasia Orzazewski) who offers a $5000 reward to anyone with information that can prove her son, Frank (Richard Conte) did not kill a policeman eleven years earlier. Newspaperman P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) is assigned to look into it. Initially skeptical, he becomes convinced that Frank is innocent. The film follows his efforts to uncover the truth and get Frank pardoned.
In other words, the Wieceks’ situation presents what journalists call a “great story,” and the film may be based on fact, but the storytelling is sheer melodramatic manipulation. Frank, his mother and ex-wife Helen (Joanne De Bergh) are virtual saints while those who try to thwart McNeal’s efforts are cold and heartless. And while McNeal eventually succeeds in persuading the pardon board of Frank’s innocence, it is only because a sudden, last minute idea leads him to the necessary evidence, which, of course, arrives just in the nick of time to give Stewart the chance to exercise his signature tremulous outrage. It’s high calorie hokum, about as far removed from the moral complexities of everyday life as something shot on the backlot, but undeniably compelling.
Nonetheless, it is a vivid record of the Chicago locations at the time of the production (1948) since the camera inevitably picks up much, much more than the story needs to reveal an impoverished, dangerous environment almost in spite of the melodramatic intentions. Beautifully photographed by Joseph McDonald, every perspective reveals an unfamiliar, disquieting world. A mammoth baroque church, for example, towers over Tillie Wiececk’s neighborhood of ramshackle wood-frame houses, in an image of unspoken hierarchical domination. The inside of the state penitentiary, a multi-story Panopticon, is shiny, impersonal, devastatingly inhuman and a terrifying indictment of the system at its most brutally efficient. Smoke hangs heavily in the air in the bars, alleys, and pool halls in the rugged neighborhoods adjoining the slaughterhouses, while exposed wires dangle from the ceilings of dank tenement apartments.
There is little doubt that these unfiltered, quotidian images were selected to heighten the “good story” of Tillie Wiecek’s determination to free her son. They also fashionably exploited the post-Italian Neorealist model of accentuating the warts of the messy world over glossy studio perfection. But the mess revealed bursts the narrative contrivances to assert a presence of its own that underlines how conventionally the images are used. An affecting social tearjerker, Call Northside 777 is little better than cinematic muckraking, but the dark reality it stirs up assures a power far greater than the two-handkerchief story.