The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Call Northside 777

This is going to sound simple, but certain movies make me think of the message. Watching old films from basically any Hollywood film is one of my favorite things to do. It can give a window into times long since past. We see towns and cities as they were, not as they are. An all-around solid quasi-documentary, film noir-ish mystery, 1948's Call Northside 777 is a gem.

A reporter for the Chicago Times newspaper, reporter P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) is given a new assignment. An 11-year old murder case from 1932 is in the news, both Frank Wiciek (Richard Conte) and Tomek Zaleska (an uncredited George Tyne) serving 99-year prison sentences for the murder of a Chicago police officer. Wiciek's mother, Tillie (Kasia Orzazewski), a blue collar worker if there ever was, has offered a $5,000 reward for finding the real murder, exonerating her son. McNeal writes the mother's story, but it grabs attention of readers who want more of this story leaving McNeal to explore the long-retired murder case. Ever the suspicious reporter, McNeal goes along but questions the case. Could Frank actually be guilty?

Based on a true story involving the murder of a Chicago police officer (read about it HERE, SPOILERS obviously), 'Call' is an interesting movie for all the right reasons. From director Henry Hathaway, it is part documentary, part investigative procedural, part film noir. The good thing? It moves among those three different genres effortlessly. Clocking in at 112 minutes, it isn't always the quickest-paced flick, but it moves around a lot so that's excusable. A story in the shadows, taking advantage of the black and white photography, it's a great movie to watch.

For me though, this movie is worthwhile for two reasons. One, Hathaway filmed on location in Chicago. This is a great window into late 1940s Chicago. Trivia question and answer for you, but this was the first Hollywood feature film to film on location in Chicago. Where so many films from the 1940s would limit themselves to Hollywood sets, 'Call' gets a whole lot of points for filming in downtown Chicago, but the suburbs as well. Curious what the Windy City looked like 60-plus years ago? This is your movie. The other reason; as a writer who's written for the Chicago Sun-Times, it's a great precursor for All the President's Men. We see how journalists and investigators worked in a pre-Internet age, doing their investigating the old-fashioned way. It's the little things, ain't it?

Already an established star by 1947, Stewart does a solid, workmanlike job as reporter P.J. McNeal. Cynical to a point because the job requires it, McNeal is skeptical of the whole case but takes it on because it's a decent story that readers are curious about it. As the real story comes out though, he starts to question even more, giving Stewart a good chance to flex a little dramatically. Go crusading journalist! Conte is solid in a supporting role as the possibly falsely-convicted Frank while Orzazewski is a scene-stealer as his mother, Tillie. Usually a tough guy actor, Lee J. Cobb plays Kelly, McNeal's editor at the Chicago Times. Joanne De Bergh has a small but essential part as Helen, Frank's wife who supports his innocence. Also look for John McIntire as a former state's attorney trying to cover his butt and an uncredited E.G. Marshall in a small part.

There are some oddities here I feel I have to point out. For a story that's built on the small details, the little pieces of evidence, the movie itself.....isn't. Several rather key questions go unanswered in the end. We find out what happens to Conte's Frank, but what about his supposed partner, Tyne's Tomek? Why is Cobb's editor so dead-set on following this story up? A backstory is hinted at, but never dealt with. The ending is effective, but with a 112-minute movie, it comes together a little quickly, almost like Hathaway ran out of time or money. Still, these are problems but not ones that can ruin a movie. Highly recommend checking this one out.

Call Northside 777 <---trailer (1948): ***/****

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