The Sons of Katie Elder looks epic in the sweeping vistas of its Mexican locations and its large cast of characters, but it doesn’t feel epic in the scope of its story. Its two-hour length is more than enough to contain its narrative, with a solid twenty minutes to spare. It’s not a bad movie so much as a decent one that takes its sweet time getting to the point.
Don’t be deceived by the fact that John Wayne received an Oscar for his performance as Rooster Cogburn. That award was probably more of a lifetime achievement award than recognition for a single performance, much like Paul Newman’s Oscar for The Color of Money. John Wayne had given better performances and made better films. Probably not coincidentally, John Ford was usually involved.
This fact-based account of a crusading journalist trying to exonerate a man falsely imprisoned for murder has been released under Fox’s “Film Noir” line of DVDs, even though it might not belong under that umbrella. Superficially, I guess you could say that bears some resemblance to the noir classics, namely its time period and the plot centering on urban violence and corruption, but it lacks some key elements of the genre. Its hero, city reporter P.J. McNeal (Jimmy Stewart) and the subject of his quest, Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) are a little too pure and noble to fit under the strict definition of noir, but as a film genre, noir has proven to be most flexible. It matters little, since regardless of its classification, Call Northside 777 is a taut and involving movie.