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.
Based loosely on the story of Joseph Majczek and the efforts of Chicago Times reporter James P. McGuire, Henry Hathaway’s documentary-style story becomes with a terse, matter-of-fact recount of the facts of the case, in which a Chicago cop was gunned down by two men in a speakeasy in 1932. A Polish immigrant named Tomek Zaleska (George Tyne) is tracked back to the home of Frank and Helen Wiecek (Joanne De Bergh). Inconsistencies in his story and an eyewitness lead to Frank being arrested, tried and convicted of the crime and sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Eleven years later, Frank’s mother, Tillie (Kasia Orzazewski), offers all the money she has saved cleaning floors ($5,000) for information on the real killer. This arouses the curiosity of the Times’ city desk editor, Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb), who dispatches McNeal to look into it. He’s skeptical at first, believing that Wiecek put his mother up to it, but Tillie sticks to her story.
The story of a mother working for eleven years to free her son touches a chord with the Times readers and Kelly sends McNeal to interview a reluctant Frank in prison as a follow-up, which generates even more response. McNeal is uncomfortable generating so much favorable publicity for a convicted cop killer, so he decides to put an end to the story by interviewing Frank’s wife, Helen, who divorced him. However, her story that Frank insisted on the divorce to protect their son only makes him more sympathetic.
Frank is furious, however, that McNeal has splashed his wife and son’s picture all over the front page after he made them start a new life and accuses the report of exploiting his family to sell papers. McNeal makes Frank a deal. He’ll write the story Frank’s way if the convicted man passes a lie-detector test. Frank does and passes easily, prompting McNeal to launch a crusade to exonerate the man, much to the dismay of the officials who put him behind bars in the first place.
The story is actually one that is fairly familiar even to a modern audience. The news has had a steady parade of convicted men and women released after being sent to prison on pretty tenuous evidence. The advent of DNA evidence has made an even more common occurrence today than it was then. In many cases, the reaction of prosecutors and police is identical to the official foot-dragging seen in this movie. They’re more afraid of being wrong than they are interested in being right. Even in today’s most notorious miscarriage of justice, the Duke Lacrosse team rape case, there still some who believe that the accused were guilty of something, even with the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
This film is virtually 100% carried on the shoulders of Jimmy Stewart. His P.J. McNeal is a well-drawn portrait of a decent man, hardened to the point of cynicism, who finds a cause he believes in. Lee J. Cobb gives able support as McNeal’s editor, who isn’t above a well-intentioned bald-faced lie to motivate his reporters to go after a story.
The plot of the film is resolved a little too neatly, based on a virtually miraculous enlargement of an eleven-year-old wire photo, which provides a slightly more cinematic ending than the real case had. On the other hand, it’s not much different than the “magical” technology that permeates today’s CSI shows, either. Fortunately, what precedes it is a compelling story of a man’s almost obsessive effort to right a miscarriage of justice.