A mishmash noir: Call Northside 777 (Henry Hathaway, 1948)

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Following the financial flops that were Magic Town and It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart decided it was time to shed his earnest, boyish image. He started with cynical reporter P.J. McNeal in docu-noir Call Northside 777. This film was based on the true story of a man who was falsely convicted of killing a policeman, and was released more than 11 years later thanks to the investigative efforts of reporters at the Chicago Times. It sits a little uneasily not only with Stewart’s image, but also with its own melange of stylistic choices.

Call Northside 777 was filmed in various locations in Illinois, and these scenes have a fascinating realism. The panopticon in the Illinois State Penitentiary and the streets and bars of Chicago’s Polish quarter definitely don’t feel like places commonly shown in a film. Stewart ably blends into this world, McNeal often treating the people he interviews with disinterest and disbelief.

The film doesn’t fully adhere to realism, however. Various scenes, particularly towards the end, are studio bound and feel more strongly scripted. These parts of the film aren’t bad, but they are less distinctive and contrast uncomfortably with the grittier scenes. As McNeal grows more committed to freeing Wiecek, he begins to resemble his famous Mr Smith, which also jars with the character we saw at the beginning of the story.

One of the best sequences in Call Northside 777 feels disjointed with the scenes around it, in a different way. When McNeal goes to a key witness’s apartment, the film takes on more stylised noir lighting. A stairway, a bedroom, and a passing train become striking pieces of light and shadow, greatly enhancing a sense of danger in the scene.

Call Northside 777 amounts to being something of a mishmash. It mixes authentic locations with studio sets. It gives James Stewart a different character type to play yet draws on his most famous role. It can drop some of its elements, such as its narrator or the character of McNeal’s wife, for more than half the film. (The narrator reappears, but she doesn’t.) It spends a good deal of time dwelling on (then modern) technology such as a polygraph machine or a miniature camera, often at the expense of drama, and yet the dramatic scenes can involve a piece of symbolism as obvious as a jigsaw puzzle. It boasts its realism and yet its final act is very Hollywood. These aspects don’t make for a consistent film, but it is a curious one, at the least.

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