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As part of Fox’s Film Noir series, Call Northside 777 comes to DVD for the first time.

The footage from inside the Stateville prison is unprecedented
The footage from inside the Stateville prison is unprecedented

Released in 1948, Northside is an early film in the “docu-noir” genre. The movie is based on actual events, as the opening credits, printed on an official-looking dossier, proudly announce. James Stewart stars as P.J. McNeal of the Chicago Times. His editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb) sends him to interview a cleaning lady who has taken out an ad offering $5,000 for information about an 11-year-old crime. (The ad directs people to call Northside 777, thus the film’s title). The cleaning lady (Kasia Orzazewski) is the mother of a convicted cop killer, Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte). She has scrubbed floors and saved pennies these last 11 years to put up a reward for information that will clear her Frankie, whom she swears is innocent.

Stewart’s hardened reporter doesn’t believe that Wiecek is innocent, but the “faith of a mother” angle will play well enough at the Times, so he writes the story. It plays so well that Kelly assigns him a followup story, sending him first to the Stateville prison to interview Frank Wiecek, and then to visit Wiecek’s ex-wife and son. Once again, MacNeil finds a story that sells papers, but he doesn’t think he has found an innocent man.

Just as MacNeil is starting to get bored with the story, Wiecek requests one last meeting. But instead of telling MacNeil a sob story, Wiecek tells MacNeil to stop writing about him. Wiecek had divorced his wife so that his son could grow up with another, unsullied name. By running a photo of his son, MacNeil destroyed what Frank gave up his marriage for. “I’d rather spend a thousand years here,” he tells MacNeil, than have another word written about his family.

Something about Wiecek’s sincerity, along with the warden’s belief that Wiecek is probably innocent, makes MacNeil start to believe him. He arranges for a polygraph (a relatively new invention in 1948), which Wiecek passes, and starts investigating police records from 11 years ago. A deal with the governor sets a deadline for MacNeil’s investigation, and adds the needed pressure to bring about the story’s resolution.

As noted in the informative audio commentary by writers James Ursini and Alain Silver, this is the first role in the second half of Jimmy Stewart’s career. (The DVD never mentions that Ursini and Silver are authors and film historians, surely an oversight by Fox.) Call Northside 777 sets a darker tone, presaging the roles Stewart take in the next decades. There is a big change from the young Stewart — gangly, naive, and good-natured in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and You Can’t Take it With You — to the older Stewart who spied on his neighbors in Rear Window and worked with Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann. Call Northside 777 marks the beginning of that change.

The movie itself seems a little light to be considered “film noir.” Some of the low-key lighting and deep cinematography (by Joseph MacDonald) is worthy of the term, and the crime story fits the genre, but Northside lacks the sense of doom and foreboding that one expects from film noir. The movie even introduces MacNeil’s wife (Helen Walker) and their cheery apartment, which grounds the film too neatly in middle-class reality for this to really be noir.

But Ursini and Silver offer the kind of insight only multiple viewings or a trip to the library would offer, and their commentary puts the film in its proper context. They prefer to call Northside “docu-noir” or “docudrama” and not “film noir,” although they acknowledge it may lie in the gray area on the fringes of the genre.

They also offer their encyclopedic knowledge of movies from the era. For example, they describe the real-life events that inspired Northside, and how they differ from what’s on-screen. They also explain how the movie fits into the careers of all the film’s major contributors, including Jimmy Stewart, director Henry Hathaway, cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, and most of the supporting actors too. They even explain how it fits into Fox’s history — Northside was an early film in a separate division dedicated to making movies based on reality, using real locations (the footage from inside the Stateville prison is unprecedented). Ursini and Silver are two guys you’d definitely want on your trivia team.

They’re not only film encyclopedias, they also explain how the framing, lighting, or editing affects the emotion in a scene, or how 1949 audiences might react differently from modern audiences. For example, they comment on the film’s obsession with technology — the polygraph scene goes on way too long for modern audiences, but at the time, it would have been more of a novelty.

The DVD also comes with a four-page booklet — not much compared to a Criterion release, and not much of a supplement to the commentary track, but it’s still informative, and a nice touch from Fox.

As the movie ends, Call Northside 777 leaps 54 years into the future, making it a surprisingly timely film. It ends with Stewart standing in front of an Illinois penitentiary, marveling that “It’s a big thing when a sovereign state admits an error. Remember this, there aren’t many governments of the world that would do it.” The scene calls to mind the headlines from 2003, when then-Illinois governor George Ryan suspended the death penalty in his state after mistakes had been found, thanks to the hard work of some journalism students.

Call it a case of life imitating art imitating life.

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies