"It couldn't happen . . . but it did!"
This movie is based on a true story. The names have been changed, etc. The film shows the positive role which the news media can play in even a partially free society. The movie was filmed as much as possible on location at actual settings in which the story occurred. Call Northside 777 has great acting, excellent direction, a good sound track and an uplifting, as well as true, story. These are elements that often contribute to popular classic movies.
The movie begins with background, telling of the Chicago fire of 1871 and the new city that rose from the ashes. The new city was a violent center of bootlegger activity during the period of alcohol prohibition. Pictures of Capone and Dillinger are briefly shown along with stock footage from the prohibition era. Near the end of the era came the first events of the film’s story relating to the killing of a police officer in 1932.
Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde) owned a Chicago business, which was a grocery store in front and a speakeasy in back. Wanda’s speakeasy is not portrayed as a glamorous operation. Its patrons were not the high rollers of the era, but apparently from the working poor of the Chicago Polish community. In Dec. ’32 a police officer seeks a “medicinal” jolt of bootleg liquor at Wanda’s place when two heavily garbed men cross the threshold of the grocery, silencing the door bell alarm on entering. The two men draw guns and enter the speakeasy area. While Wanda and the other customer dive for cover, the policeman attempts to draw his gun. The strangers shoot him three times killing him and make their escape in a car which had been parked out front.
Working from a series of “tips,” the Chicago police take married couple Helen (Joanne De Bergh) and Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) into custody for questioning. Frank is shown being interrogated (with no lawyer present). Minor mismatches between his testimony and Helen’s are used in an attempt to catch him in a lie. Helen is released, but Frank is held as a suspect. Later Frank’s friend Tomek Zaleska (George Tyne), the one who was implicated first in the “tips,” turns himself in to the police. More minor discrepancies in stories are played up by police. Tomek and Frank are indicted for murder. At the trial, Wanda Skutnik identifies Tomek and Frank as the men who shot the policeman. Other eye witnesses disagree, but in Nov. ’33 they are convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison and sent to Stateville, Illinois.
Eleven years later a small advertisement appears in the Chicago Times offering a $5,000 reward for information on the killers of the policeman with instructions to Call Northside 777 for Tillie Wiecek. Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb) the editor of the paper takes an interest in the small ad. He calls in one of his reporters: P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) and asks him to see if there is a news story behind the ad. So begins McNeal’s investigation.
At the start of his search McNeal is mainly interested in selling newspapers and very cynical about Frank Wiecek’s innocence. However, the more he learns about Tillie (Frank’s mother played very convincingly by Kasia Orzazewski), Frank and Helen, Tomek and the circumstances surrounding the original police investigation, the more he is convinced of Frank and Tomek’s innocence. Eventually, McNeal joins in Tillie’s effort to free her son from prison.
For fans of Jimmy Stewart, and I count myself in that set, this movie should be especially interesting. It was made at a period in his career during which he was switching from the light-hearted characters he portrayed in earlier movies such as You Can’t Take it with You to the “darker” characters which he was starting to play. Although journalist McNeal isn’t that dark, he is a somewhat hardnosed character.
Call Northside 777 is usually classed as a film noir crime drama, and that characterization fits very well, but there is more. Like Double Indemnity this film shows how the private sector solving of crime can work in practice. Call Northside 777 shows the uncaring nature of the State’s “solutions” to crime problems, problems which it often creates. With Tillie Wiecek and her devotion to her son, it also shows the potential importance of family in every person’s life. Even though the newspaper people in this film are not starry-eyed idealists, one can wish that journalists today might have as much devotion to justice.