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Sunday 11 December 2022

Burl reviews Call Northside 777! (1948)


Ring ring, it’s Burl, here with newspaper drama! Yes, ol’ Burl is a big fan of the newspaper genre – I really like All the President’s Men of course, and His Girl Friday, and Ace in the Hole, and I even found lots to like about The Paper – not least, ha ha, that it was a newspaper movie! And I’ve just watched one I’d never seen before, a little joint called Call Northside 777!

The title refers to a wee classified ad discovered in the paper by newshound P.J. McNeal! McNeal is played by James Stewart, well known from Thunder Bay and Rear Window, and, following up the ad, he discovers an old floor scrubber named Tillie Wiecek in despair because her son Frank has been in jail these last eleven years for killing a cop! Of course she claims he didn’t do it, and hopes her ad, and the $5000 in reward money she’s spent the past decade on her hands and knees earning, will help bring forth a witness who can clear Frank’s name!

McNeal is initially dismissive, not willing to give a cop killer the time of day! But as he digs into the case, and once he goes to the jail to meet Frank, who’s played very well by Richard Conte from Ocean’s Eleven and is an incredibly sympathetic character, he starts to think, hey, maybe this fella Frank is innocent after all! The great Lee J. Cobb from Gorilla At Large is McNeal’s editor, and, as the story starts to catch the public attention, he encourages his reporter to follow it up!

McNeal does so, occasionally going home to visit his wife, played by Helen Walker from Nightmare Alley and The Big Combo, where they sleep in separate beds as per bizarre Code rules and she makes him sandwiches when he has insomnia worrying about the Wiecek case! I guess he couldn’t make his own sandwich for some reason! McNeal gets on the trail of a witness called Wanda Skutnik, who proves to be just as unpleasant as her name, and he often returns to the Statesville prison, where an unbelievably accommodating warden accedes to his every request! Wiecek is at first justifiably angry about the negative attention the publicity is giving his wife and son, and demands that McNeal lay off! But this reporter is too dogged for that!

E.G. Marshall from Creepshow appears as the kindly (or as kindly as Marshall can manage) man whom Wiecek’s wife marries while he’s in prison so that their son can live a more normal life; and here’s where the movie really shines: in laying out the terrible difficulty of having a husband and father supposed by everyone to be a cop killer! You really feel for these Wieceks, and want Frank to get out of gaol and that post-haste, ha ha! But this movie is an occasionally long 112 minutes, so before that happens there’s plenty of time to watch all the details of how a polygraph test is administered, for example!

Because that’s the other thing: the movie is a gallery of all-new police techniques, like polygraph machines and forgery detection and photo enlargement processes, and a fantastic sort of proto-fax machine that whirls around like a lathe and sends pictures across the wire – but, ha ha, you have to develop them on the receiving end before you can see them! But they really wanted to keep it real for this movie, so when it comes to the lie detector scene, they got the guy who invented the gosh darn machine to play the fellow administering the test, and they take care to depict every intricacy! And McNeal, the newsman, is all the while asking the sort of questions any layman would, and getting detailed explanations of the technologies!

So there’s occasionally the feeling of watching an educational film or a sponsored documentary, but the olde-tyme tech aspect is really interesting, to me anyway! And, as I say, you get really caught up in the family’s situation, so by the time the boy is running toward his freed father, shouting “Daddy! That’s my daddy!” you may shed a happy tear! I don’t think I’m giving anything away to reveal that Wiecek is in fact proved innocent, but another thing about the conclusion, foregone as it may be, is that it doesn’t really follow up the hints of conspiracy and cover-up that are teased in the first half! I suppose we’re meant to take the railroad job done on Wiecek as just one of those things, and the subsequent cover-up as just what any sensible authority figure would do after committing a horrible blunder! Ha ha, some of the sensibilities are a little out of date, I guess, and this fealty toward authority is among them! But the movie has lots to recommend it, and Stewart is always good, so I give Call Northside 777 three linotype slugs!

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