Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Wrong Number: Call Northside 777

Call Northside 777
Fox // 1948 // 111 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening Shot
Jimmy Stewart saves a slow-moving noir with an early display of the intensity he would later bring to now-classic Hitchcock films.

A bit of plot…

Loosely based on a real Chicago incident, Call Northside 777 opens in 1932 during Prohibition with the murder of a patrolman in a speakeasy. The cops shake down a bootlegger who fingers small-time crook Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte, whose best-remembered role, as mobster Don Barzini, would come nearly a quarter century later with The Godfather). With swift justice and cinematic economy (no more than three minutes), Wiecek is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 99 years in Joliet Penitentiary.

Flash forward to 1943 and Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb, The Exorcist), world-weary editor of the Chicago Times. Scanning the proofs for tomorrow’s newspaper, he pauses at a classified ad offering $5,000 to anyone who can find the killer of a certain Chicago cop 11 years ago. He assigns hard-boiled news reporter P.J. McNeal (Stewart, Vertigo) to locate and interview the person who would pony up such a huge reward. Turns out, Wiecek’s mother has saved the money by scrubbing floors for 11 years while her son languishes in prison. She believes her boy is innocent.

At first skeptical, McNeal gradually comes to believe Wiecek may be innocent. Applying his tenacious investigative skills to the task of cracking the Chicago underground, McNeal reopens the 11-year-old murder case and writes a series of news articles with an increasingly editorial slant in an attempt to sniff out someone—anyone—who might provide the missing evidence that would exonerate Wiecek.

Historical Context and Significance
This picture was directed by the moderately talented Henry Hathaway, whose more famous noir Kiss of Death had been released a year earlier. Call Northside 777 (the title refers to a telephone number) is also the first movie shot on location in the Windy City, using buildings and outdoor sites that figured in the actual case on which the film is based. Hathaway strives for utter realism, but he achieves it with achingly slow pacing and long stretches that seem to unfold in real time. Perhaps Hathaway was just following the trend he started with Kiss of Death, forcing his actors to give the naturalistic performances that were de rigueur in postwar Hollywood. But in his quest for authenticity Hathaway overlooked what audiences crave most in a crime thriller: the desire to be thrilled.

What we have, then, is an extremely well-written noir that plods along to the final act and a perfunctory ending undermined by embarrassingly silly narration. With sharp dialogue and believable characters, Call Northside 777 is absorbing to a point, but it’s no classic. It may be the most overrated noir ever made.

Some movie guidebooks claim that poor Wiecek is on death row, awaiting execution while Stewart’s newspaper reporter scrambles to save him. This is not correct. If it were, that might give the plot a measure of tension and suspense. There is never a sense of urgency to Stewart’s investigation. Instead, Stewart grumbles and occasionally gets agitated in his inimitable way as he deals with lowlifes and an indifferent bureaucracy. Modern audiences may grow restless, even annoyed.

Still, Stewart shimmers in the tailor-made role of a righteous reporter on a crusade, ably supported by a solid cast. Character actor John McIntire, memorable as Sheriff Chambers in Psycho, here plays a doubting district attorney growing impatient with McNeal’s investigation. McIntire’s droll delivery and bemused expressions are a highlight of any film graced with his presence.

What's on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Extras on the disc are decent if unspectacular, which is probably to be expected with a budget-priced title. The commentary track by film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver offers many interesting insights into the production, such as the decision to shoot principal photography on location. The Movietone news reel is footage of the premiere, with blaring narration and grinning celebrities. The image is scratched up pretty good, too.

The Contrarian View
Distressing amounts of digital artifacts mar the picture at key dramatic moments. Several awkward pauses between chapter stops also seem unnecessary and avoidable, suggesting an inferior compression to DVD. Nothing shatters the suspension of disbelief like a film that pixilates and pauses at the most inopportune times. Audio is serviceable and dialogue-centric.

We cannot overlook the ludicrously solemn narration that opens the picture and nearly ruins what might otherwise be a tight, unsentimental ending. Director Hathaway violates the cardinal rule of film narrative—show us, don’t tell us—especially when the narrator merely explains and overstates what we can see for ourselves.

Loose ends still abound in the final reel, leaving the film with a less than satisfying conclusion. For example (spoiler alert!), after all the trouble McNeal endures to prove the innocence of a wrongly convicted man, we are left with the nagging question: who was the real killer?

Call Northside 777 ranks among the lesser noirs. Its value exists mainly in Stewart’s finely drawn characterization of a cynical man with a nagging conscience. This was the template he would develop to perfection in a quartet of classic films for Alfred Hitchcock: Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window and, most memorably, Vertigo.

The movie is worth a look for Jimmy Stewart’s transition from glib leading man to haunted obsessive, with World War II standing as a bridge between the two personas.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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