Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Flick of The Day: Call Northside 777

Filmed in a pseudo-documentary style by director Henry Hathaway, perhaps better remembered these days as director of two John Wayne's best films True Grit and The Sons of Katie Elder, today's flick of the day is a true crime tale set in 1940's Chicago. The documentary style is used to highlight the true to life tale at its core.
In 1932, prohibition era Chicago a policeman is gunned down inside a speakeasy and Frank Wiecek played by Richard Conte is quickly arrested and sentenced to 99 years for the crime. Fast forward 11 years and Wiecek's ageing mother places an ad in a newspaper offering a reward of $5,000 for any information. She is firm in her belief that Frank cannot be guilty. This leads a sceptical editor of the Chicago Times, Brian Kelly played by the always brilliant Lee J. Cobb to assign one of his reporters P.J McNeal to investigate. Jimmy Stewart, perhaps the greatest American actor of his time, shines as McNeal. He imbues the character with the kind of lived in feeling that earned him the nickname The Ordinary Hero.
Of course, as soon as McNeal starts to investigate, the case which had at first seemed so solid begins to slowly unravel. As he chips away at the evidence that sent a cop killer to jail, he comes up against resistance from all corners of the justice system. Everyone is keen for Frank Wiecek to stay where he is. Eventually it comes down to McNeal having to prove that a witness lied in court. In a thrilling finale, an enlarged photograph plays a crucial part, the tension mounting as the photograph is enlarged, reminiscent of The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe.
The use of a documentary style gives the film an air of fact. You feel like you are following an investigation as each step McNeal takes is lay out in front of you. The use of then cutting edge technology also enhances this feeling. There is a lie detector test in which each operation of the machine is described in such a manner by the operator that he is either a very wooden actor or a real life lie detector. The crucial photograph is sent via the telephone, oh what wonders!. Again this is described in great detail. These scenes are enjoyable curiosities but not overly compelling. The real highlights are the performances of Cobb and Stewart. Its an enjoyable yarn, particularly when Stewart goes searching in the Polish slums for a missing witness. His everyman going where we wouldn't. Sure the ending feels a little corny and god bless america-ish but then you have to watch it in the context of which it was produced. The second world war had just ended and people wanted uplifting tales that reaffirmed their belief that all those people that died, did so for a just cause.

Aw, look, Frank, it's a big thing when a sovereign state admits a mistake. But remember this: there aren't many governments in the world that would do it

Overall, this is a fine film, worth seeing if only for another great performance from Jimmy Stewart. The first film shot on location in Chicago, there are some excellent location shots of that fine city. Well worth a look on a quiet day.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Follow by Email