CALL NORTHSIDE 777, a superior docu-drama directed by Henry Hathaway, was popular with both critics and audiences in 1948, a story of justice denied and redeemed based off articles written by newspaper reporter James McGuire, who also served as the movie’s technical advisor.
Chicago, the mid 1940s. A classified ad seeking offering reward info about a decade-old murder piques a newspaper publisher to put reporter ‘P.J. McNeal’ (James Stewart) onto tracking down the “human interest” curio. As things add up—or don’t—regarding the case, a cop-killing which put two men away for life, McNeal’s skeptical peek gradually then turns into a investigation that becomes a personal crusade to right a wrong.
Stewart excels as the cynical but humane reporter. Richard Conte does a fine job as ‘Frank Wiecek’, the imprisoned son of the Polish-American scrubwoman who spent a decade saving money for the reward specified in the ad. Kazia Orzazewski is moving as the mother who will not give up on her son. Lee J. Cobb (not yet into his scenery-chewing mode) is the editor backing his reporter’s diligence. Leonarde Keeler, the inventor of the polygraph, plays himself; unlike most people who did this sort of “acting as myself” for movies, he’s relaxed and convincing. *
Hathaway shot on location around Chicago, and at the Illinois State Pen in Joliet, making dramatic use of the prison’s spectacular and eerie panopticon array of cell units. Other than Alfred Newman’s music for the main title, there is no underscoring. Grossing $7,100,000, it became the 30th most-attended picture of 1948, a year loaded with quality crime flicks. **
With Joanne De Bergh, Helen Walker, Betty Garde (unrepentant liar ‘Wanda Skutnick’), Moroni Olsen, John McIntire (his first credited part), George Tyne, Howard Smith, E.G. Marshall, Charles Lane, Henry Kulky, Addison Richards, Lionel Stander, Otto Waldis, Thelma Ritter (barely glimpsed), Percy Helton.
* Hathaway on the “new” Jimmy Stewart: “I needed him…but not the Capra Jimmy. I knew audiences would instinctively identify with him because of his niceness. But I was very strict—I wouldn’t tolerate any of those ‘ohs and ‘ahs’ he’d been getting away with.”
Stewart: “That was the picture that really got me started after the war.” He recalled a convict telling him “Why don’t you bastards get out of here? We want our privilege’s back. We have to stay in our cells the whole time you’re shooting the damn picture. Why don’t you get the hell out of here and leave us alone?”
** SPOILER: Naturally, the screenplay by Jerome Cady & Jay Dratler does the expected name-changing and time-compression, and the emotionally rewarding ‘justice served’ ending of course had no way of knowing what lay in the future for Joseph Majczek, the real man played by Conte . After release, he found work selling insurance in Chicago. Illinois awarded him $25,000 for his 11 lost years: Joe gave it to his mother. He remarried his wife, divorced—as the movie shows with sensitivity—while he was in prison. He died in 1983, his last years spent in a mental institution. Theodore Marcinkiewicz, the poor also-innocent slob sent up with him (played in the film by George Tyne), served five more years before he was allowed justice; he was doled $35,000 for 17 years behind bars.