I couldn’t not listen to Call Northside 777’s commentary after seeing that it was done by Alain Silver and James Ursini. These academics know their noir, and I warmed to Silver in particular after encountering page 4 of his introduction to The Film Noir Reader, where he interprets a critic’s misspelling of his name as “Alan.” He writes: “Nor am I suggesting that critical writing should be about crossing every “t” or including every “i.” This is particularly true with writers on motion pictures, who are addressing an expressive medium that is the most complex in the history of art. But Vernet’s assumption about how a particular name should be spelled is telling in that it reveals his tendency towards pre-judgement and exposes the problem with his critical outlook.” Ooh, burn.
Their commentary doesn’t disappoint – if anything, it’s more interesting than the movie. They know plenty of facts about the true story it’s based on, and contrast it with what wound up onscreen. For instance, Lee J. Cobb’s character was based on a woman, but this was changed for the film because audiences wouldn’t accept a female newspaper editor. The man convicted with Wiecek remained in prison for an additional five years, not being released until after this film came out.
They also mention heapings of similar or contrasting films and fill in many details about the cast and crew’s careers. For instance, they describe the sequence where McNeal goes to find a witness as having a closer resemblance to Hathaway’s The Dark Corner than to the rest of this film. Meanwhile, Richard Conte and Helen Walker are both playing against type here.
It’s interesting to hear Silver and Ursini’s subjective thoughts on the film. They like its strongly Hollywood elements more than I do, but readily say that the polygraph test is really goddamn boring. (My words, not theirs.) They talk about having trouble following the plot, and Ursini says that noir plots are usually labyrinthine things that eventually seem to just solve themselves. I’m relieved to hear that, as well as their amused comment that the film’s ending is “so corny.” They also point out how strange it is that James Stewart stands awkwardly in the background while Wiecek reunites with his family – just like John Wayne in The Searchers, they joke.
Silver and Ursini give some analysis of Stewart’s career, too. They discuss this role’s strains of Mr Smith, and the westerns Stewart would go on to make with Anthony Mann. The big shocker for me was their claim that Stewart revolutionised the star system by leaving his studio and taking on films for a smaller salary but also for a cut of the profits. That’s a significant fact that I was completely unaware of. A sign that I am still but a novice of film history, I suppose.