Based on the actual case of a 1932 Chicago cop-killing during a store robbery, where two Polish-Americans, later exonerated, were prosecuted and sentenced to life imprisonment, Call Northside 777 is director Henry Hathaway’s finest achievement. It is Hathaway who had introduced (in The House on 92nd Street, 1945) the postwar style that applied documentary realism and matter-of-factness to Hollywood filmmaking, executed here engrossingly, stirringly. He, the four screen-writers, Jay Dratler, Jerome Cady, Leonard Hoffman and Quentin Reynolds, and producer Otto Lang, all won mystery-honoring Edgar Allan Poe Awards—Edgars—for “the best motion-picture of 1948.”
James Stewart is perfect as Chicago Times police reporter Jim McNeal (based on James P. McGuire), who investigates the guilt of Frank Wiecek (based on Joseph Majczek), whose mother has advertised in the paper, offering $5,000 for information proving her son’s innocence of the twelve-years-earlier shooting death. Along with friend Tomek Zaleska (based on Theodore Marcinkiewicz), Wiecek was identified as the killer by store owner Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde, memorably loathsome), who had failed to identify the two men in earlier lineups the same day. Skutnik’s eyewitness testimony, the state’s only evidence against them, proved sufficient nevertheless to convict both men.
McNeal begins cynically, skeptically, but the more he learns the more convinced he becomes of Wiecek’s innocence in particular. His series of articles rivets Chicago’s attention.
The film begins and ends with brief sound-gestures: a bit of conventional score and Reed Hadley’s authoritative (and, at the close, powerful) voiceover; in between, a reporter-procedural bereft of any score. For me, the most gripping passage is Hathaway’s atmospheric descent into Chicago’s frayed, gloomy Polish ghetto, a working-class district bordering Hell. It is here, in her dim, seedy apartment, that McNeal encounters Skutnik, who, surly and aggressive, refuses to recant her testimony. But fascinating, too, is the new technology: a lie-detector test; the blowup of a newspaper photograph that exposes Skutnik’s lie against Wiecek, winning him his freedom and occasioning a heartening remark of his: “It’s a good world—outside.”
Less convincing is a simplistic glimpse of McNeal’s married homelife, and infuriating is a big loose end: how Zaleska, as innocent as Wiecek, is given such short shrift. There is no parole and release for him; reality had not delivered that yet. By the time of the film, Majczek was free, but Marcinkiewicz remained in prison for three more years.
One more thing grates in this otherwise outstanding film: its nonsensical insistence that the kind of injustice it depicts, involving police corruption and prosecutorial malfeasance, is something the U.S. had outgrown.
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