Noir melodrama: Violent Saturday (Richard Fleischer, 1955)

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Violent Saturday mixes small-town melodrama with film noir. Bisbee, Arizona stands in for Bradenville, a place with an oddball on every corner. Boyd (Richard Egan), a wealthy boozer, drinks away his sorrows while his wife Emily (Margaret Hayes) sleeps around. Nurse Linda (Virginia Leith) is brazen about wanting Boyd, and happy to take on Emily to get him. Bank manager Harry Reeves (Tommy Noonan) is a full-blown peeping tom. Librarian Elsie Braden (Sylvia Sidney) snatches purses to pay off her bank loan. Shelley Martin (Victor Mature) is comparatively normal, but his son is upset that Shelley’s an engineer, not a war hero.

In the midst of all this fetid to-ing and fro-ing step three crooks, played by Stephen McNally, J. Carroll Naish, and Lee Marvin. They’re planning a bank heist on Saturday, which is going to turn violent whether anyone likes it or not. An Amish farmer will be the only one who can save the day—good thing he’s played by Ernest Borgnine.

The hiest and its aftermath are reasonably entertaining, generating a certain amount of suspense. Marvin’s sadistic but insecure Dill is good sick fun (the moment where he steps on a child’s hand is rather nasty). His confrontation with Borgnine is not their best (how could it be?) but it’s a memorable one.

The melodrama is where the film falls down. Few of the characters are likeable, and most aren’t written or acted vividly enough to leap off the screen. Harry’s deserved come-uppance never arrives – which would be less egregious if Linda didn’t forgive him for spying on her at night. That this scene comes right before a sappy moment between Shelley and his son just doesn’t mix well.

Violent Saturday‘s genre play and eclectic cast make it a worthwhile curio, but it doesn’t measure up as a strong example of anything much.

Nights at the circus: Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947)

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It can sometimes get difficult to pin down whether or not a movie is a film noir. Nightmare Alley has the right kind of feel – it occurs primarily at night, has a (mostly) cynical attitude, and involves a protagonist who makes one dreadful mistake. His sense of identity and mental stability are also shaky at best. However, the film’s characters and settings are, mostly, quite atypical. Our lead is Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power), a circus tagalong who hits paydirt when he uncovers the secret code that medium Zeena (Joan Blondell) uses to fake her clairvoyancy. Stan gets help from sideshow girl Molly (Coleen Gray), who becomes his wife and beautiful assistant, and psychiatrist Lilith (Helen Walker), who feeds him information about her wealthy clients, but both of them betray them in their own ways.

The real mindfuckery Stan experiences doesn’t happen until the third act, and prior to this, Nightmare Alley seems less like a noir than a character study. We know Power can play oversized characters, but this is a juicier role for him. He gives us hints that Stan’s charming exterior, used to great effect during his performances, hides his inner fragility. We can see the cracks before he shatters. Close to the end, Power goes from horror to despair to acceptance in just a few seconds. It’s a great moment.

Power is backed by three highly capable women in this film. As the fraud who believes in her tarot cards, Blondell was well into her progression from comedian to character actor. As the “good kid”, Gray was seeing her career on the rise; she featured in this film and Kiss of Death in 1947 and Red River in 1948. As the closest woman to being a femme fatale here, Walker was trying to recover from a driving accident that saw her condemned by the public. She performs with such a sense of control and self-possession that it’s a great pity her career would soon be over.

Does Nightmare Alley qualify as a noir? The fact that it steers clear of familiar trappings and character types, and involves little direct violence, undercuts an affirmative answer. The tacked-on upbeat ending also disturbs the tone, but this wasn’t unusual for the time. It’s better, perhaps, to say that Nightmare Alley is a distinctive film – and that this makes it an easy one to recommend.

Agatha Christie goes noir: The Unsuspected (Michael Curtiz, 1947)

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The Unsuspected begins with a murder: the secretary of renowned radio host Victor Grandison (Claude Rains) is strung from a chandelier to make her death look like suicide. Odd things are happening around Victor; only a few weeks previously, his ward Matilda (Joan Caulfield) seemingly perished in a shipwreck. In the meantime, a mysterious young man named Steven (Michael North) has emerged, claiming to be her husband – but when Matilda reappears alive, she has no memory of him. Throw into the mix Victor’s brassy blonde assistant Jane (Constance Bennett), his nasty niece Althea (Audrey Totter), and her alcoholic husband Oliver (Hurd Hatfield), not to mention a cop and crook or two, and we’ve got a complex house-bound murder mystery on our hands.

This film actually reveals the murderer, in a brief flash, in the opening scene. It’s taking the Colombo approach, then. It works here because the murderer’s motives remain a mystery, and more than that, the motives of everyone around this individual remain quite uncertain too. Take the initial murder: Althea is on the phone with the secretary at the time, and hears her scream, yet does nothing other than quickly establish her alibi for the time of death. This, and a host of other curious twists and turns, keep the viewer off-balance.

The whole film has an Agatha Christie air to it, but with fewer affectations. Maybe that’s a side-effect of the American setting. The film doesn’t believe in itself too much, either – while not a parody, it’s not completely serious. The fact that Victor’s radio show is about murder mysteries indicates that the story is knowing about its genre.

The Unsuspected is a marvellous looking movie. Curtiz doesn’t miss a trick – nearly every scene has some inventive use of light and shadow. It far surpasses the typical noir shuttered-blinds-lighting. There’s plenty of fine camera choices, too: here, we’re looking down on Matilda from a high angle as a figure (who proves benign, but startles her) hurries towards her; here, a victim’s shadow slumps in the frame before her body falls into view; here, we’re peering through a thin curtain at an illicit meeting, the camera pulling back to reveal the reactions of two people watching from outside.

The actors in The Unsuspected are almost as curious as their characters. Totter was a noir staple, perfect at paying bad girl roles. Caulfield is a favourite of Joss Whedon’s, which is something to puzzle over. Hatfield had a certain something about him, but never made much of an impact beyond the starring role in 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray – only his second film. Bennett is now less famous than her sister Joan, not for her lack of talent, but perhaps because she was almost disinterested in Hollywood. Michael North (the weakest link here) gets an “introducing” credit in this film, but had been in many films as Ted North, and has no acting credits after this one.

Claude Rains, of course, is Claude Rains. In this film he gets to do all the things we like him for. He could not be more perfect as a radio host who happily refers to himself as “mellifluous.” Take away the nicely baffling plot, the odd collection of co-stars, and the fantastic cinematography, and you’d still have a terribly enjoyable performance from Rains. That alone would make The Unsuspected good fun, but as the film stands, it’s one well worth hunting after.

A lesser Lang, a better Baxter: The Blue Gardenia (Fritz Lang, 1953)

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The Blue Gardenia lacks the extra creative push that could have made it an impactful film, and it falls short of its own clear potential. It stars Anne Baxter as Norah, a telephone operator who makes the mistake of going out with Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr) on an impulse. Hurt after being dumped by her boyfriend, having eagerly awaited his return from Korea, Norah doesn’t recognise the signs that Prebble has predatory intentions. Following a drunken struggle with him back in his apartment, she wakes with no recollection of what happened. Prebble is dead, and while the police are hunting for Norah, newspaper columnist Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) offers to help the mysterious murderess he’s dubbed the Blue Gardenia.

Anne Baxter may be remembered for her knack for playing “bad girls,” Eve of All About Eve among them, but she gets to show another side of her talents here. Norah starts out as an upbeat, easy-going character, and Baxter plays her as downright cute when she’s drunk. When her life turns upside-down, Norah is just as sympathetic as Edward G. Robinson’s fellow hapless, unlikely criminal in Fritz Lang’s more famous The Woman in the Window. Her dilemmas are more complex, too. Norah has to listen to her roommates Crystal (Ann Sothern) and Sally (Jeff Donnell) paint the Blue Gardenia as someone who deserved what she got. No one seems to care about her plight besides Mayo – and in his own way, he’s as duplicitous as Prebble.

The Blue Gardenia is laced with social commentary. Lang, one of the many German directors who immigrated to the US to escape the rise of Nazism, seems to take glee in portraying 1950s America as being full of untrustworthy people who find pleasure in others’ suffering. He cites the McCarthy hearings as having influenced his feelings at the time. In some ways, the film pulls no punches. In other ways, however, it doesn’t seem interested in giving its treatment of the newspaper business more than a few token jabs.

The film works best in its examination of Norah as a woman who’s misused by every man she comes into contact with. Prebble’s attempt to rape her is surprisingly frank for a film of this era. Her drunkenness and ignorance of his intentions are shown as being part of his gameplan, even as they are later used by others to lay the responsibility for Prebble’s actions entirely on Norah’s shoulders. The scene in which Prebble attacks her is set to Nat “King” Cole’s “The Blue Gardenia,” and the contrast between the smooth music and the unfolding violence is so effective that it’s no wonder that Zach Snyder would think to use one of Cole’s songs for a brutal fight scene in Watchmen about 60 years later. (Cole himself makes a charming appearance earlier in the film.) Unwanted pregnancy must have been too sharp an issue for the film to deal with at length, but it also plays a part in the story.

Some people do not see The Blue Gardenia as a film noir. I’d say there are three reasons for this: firstly, that the film focuses a good deal on Norah and her roommates (none of them a noir stereotype), sometimes taking a lighter tone; secondly, the well-debated matter of whether or not directors of the 40s and 50s were consciously making “film noirs” rather than crime films or melodramas; and thirdly, that only rarely does this film truly look like a noir. The blame for this must lie with Lang. Some of his other American films prove that he was capable of bringing atmosphere, texture, and a marked visual style to simple stories. However, the lighting in The Blue Gardenia is flat for the most part, with only one scene standing out as having Lang’s touch. When Norah goes to meet Mayo for the first time, his office is lit by a flashing neon sign, and she moves uncertainly through the temporary shadows it casts. However, the scene pales in comparison to, say, the similarly-lit final hotel room scene in Lang’s Scarlet Street.

The mystery’s missing pieces are not difficult to guess. The predictability need not be a problem, however. The real problem is that the story does not have a sense of urgency. It often seems to be moving at a crawl, and there’s no atmosphere to cloud the fact. It’s hard not to wish that the social commentary was given more detail, and that Baxter’s strong central performance could have been harnessed by a better paced plot.

The Blue Gardenia clearly has talent behind it. Lang did direct some viciously wonderful films in Hollywood. In addition to Baxter, Conte (adept at being likeable in an unlikely way) sells his character, and Sothern and Donnell are full of personality and verve. As if that wasn’t enough, the story was written by Vera Caspary, whose novel Laura was adapted into one of the most beloved film noirs of all time. However, the end product is lacking the time and attention that could have improved it. It’s the film’s potential that makes it so disappointing.

An idiosyncratic noir: Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944)

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Phantom Lady may be an inconsistent film, but its better aspects are so striking and, at times, unique that it’s not one to pass over. Its first half hour is slow going, largely because it focuses on Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), who isn’t really the lead character and should have been treated more as an impetus for the story. Scott is easy-going and not terribly sharp, which gets him into hot water after his unpleasant wife turns up dead. His only alibi is a mysterious woman (or rather, Phantom Lady) who he took to a show, on a whim, after his wife stood him up. This woman, obviously troubled, refused to tell Scott anything about herself, and his only observation is that she wore a sizeable hat. This hat is impressive enough to get its own screen credit (as the “Phantom Hat,” no less, created by Kenneth Hopkins), but no one else who saw Scott can seem to remember it, or the woman.

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Scott’s neck is on the line but, luckily, his secretary is is love with him and determined to clear his name. Carol (Ella Raines) starts her own investigation, and the film gets going too. She’s helped by Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez, in an interesting example of a Latino actor in the 40s getting to play a competent character), who doesn’t believe that Scott was really guilty. She’s the one doing the dangerous work, however, quickly managing to unnerve one suspicious fellow so much that he almost pushes her in front of a train. Moments later, she’s chasing him down a dark street, demanding that he answer her questions, and shaking off the local men who come to her defense. Carol is tougher than she seems.

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The film’s top-billed performer, Franchot Tone, was correct when he insisted that this is Raines’ film. She really comes into her own when Carol takes a different tactic with another potential witness. To charm a drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.) at the show Scott and the Phantom Lady went to see, she becomes a gum-chewing airhead in a tight dress and high heels. The seduction sickens her (she keeps her fists clenched while getting kissed) but she throws herself into the part.

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This leads to the film’s strangest sequence. The drummer takes Carol to a hole in the wall packed with jazz musicians and sets about showing off. She drives him into a drumming frenzy until, convinced, she gestures that she’s willing to leave with him. The lascivious camera placements and unrelenting close-ups make this one of the most (bizarrely) suggestive moments you’re likely to see in a G-rated movie.

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Carol’s investigation is getting results, and it’s at this point, more than halfway into the film, that the killer appears. He enters shadow first. He’s played by the film’s biggest name, so it’s no great surprise that he is the killer (and he quickly makes his identity obvious), but both the character and the actor represent a betrayal of sorts. The character is Jack Marlow, Scott’s best friend, and the actor is Franchot Tone, better known as a suave leading man. A well-respected and well-dressed architect, Jack may have the outward appearance of a typical Tone role but, inwardly, he’s insane.

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Tone was trying to stretch his talents with Phantom Lady, and he has in the past been so adept at playing sophisticated, charming men that he should be able to convince us that Jack has everyone fooled. He’s undercut, however, by the film’s rather simple take on mental illness. There’s more than one scene where Jack basically stands in the corner twitching while Carol and Burgess question witnesses. Was this character type fresher in 1944 than it is today? I couldn’t answer that with any more surety than I could say that surrounding a character with reflections was still an unfamiliar way of conveying madness. I do find Jack outright comedic at times, however, which is through no fault of Tone’s.

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Phantom Lady is full of marvelous visuals. The image I’ve used at the top of the post is more famous than the film itself. The section of about twenty minutes between Carol beginning her investigation and Jack revealing himself is a nightmarish journey through an urban underworld. The final confrontation between Jack and Carol in his apartment is strikingly staged and shot, with the strong performances from both actors making it a wonderfully tense sequence. Even before Carol was in danger, we must have noted Jack’s sculpture of two outstretched hands, an expression of his fascination with his own ability to do both good and evil. After Jack has made his intent clear, the sculpture stands in his place as a threat even while he’s not onscreen.

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Given the plethora of notable moments that take place in Phantom Lady‘s last two thirds, it’s all the more odd that its first half hour should be so unremarkable. This beginning makes the film seem as though it will be a dull procedural with little original to offer. Persevere, however, and you’ll find that Phantom Lady is anything but.

The boy who knew too much: The Window (Ted Tetzlaff, 1949)

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Tommy Woodry (Bobby Driscoll) is a Boy Who Cried Wolf of mid-century New York, unable to convince anyone that he witnessed his upstairs neighbours commit a murder. This makes for a fairly simple story, but one in which all the elements are sound. Driscoll, that classic tragic child star, is capable of carrying the film when called for. Meanwhile, stalwarts Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale are perfectly likeable and reasonable as Tommy’s quite mistaken parents. Of the murderous couple, Paul Stewart gives Joe Kellerson an overconfident sadism, while Ruth Roman is underserved in the promising role of a housewife who turns femme fatale by night.

The Window obviously didn’t cost a good deal of money, much of it taking place within a couple of interiors. They look convincingly cramped and grimy, however; this is not a wealthy part of town. Many scenes feature strong noir lighting, while those that are set outside on New York’s streets provide a fascinating document of a time and place. Numerous details, such as Mary Woodry hanging out washing on a line strung between apartment blocks, Tommy venturing further up a fire escape in search of a cooler place to sleep, or the family having to visit a local store just to make a phone call, add to the verisimilitude. While The Window is not complex or ambitious, what it does, it does well.

The perennial noir favourite: Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)

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I recently watched the much-beloved film noir Laura and didn’t wind up feeling much affection for it, but still respect it as a polished and sophisticated movie with a unique combination of various elements. The plot alone is genius: advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) is found murdered, only to seemingly reappear in her apartment while Detective Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), having begun to fall in love with her while investigating her death, sleeps beneath her portrait on the wall. She’s now one of the suspects, whose number also includes ascetic radio commentator and journalist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), Laura’s wealthy aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), and Laura’s fiance, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price).

Tierney was stunningly beautiful, but didn’t always deliver strong performances. It doesn’t help that Laura is meant to be more of a mystery than a person, or that Tierney appeared in the film strictly under contract obligations. Perhaps a different actress could have built a stronger character out of the script, but Laura stays a cipher here. However, every other actor in this small cast brings something distinctive to their role. Andrews has a troubled quality that befits a noir hero, and Webb is so perfect as the cynical, witty Lydecker that he would become somewhat typecast in other films. Price is just right as a lunk-headed playboy, while Anderson, an extremely capable actor, brings out every possible nuance in Treadwell.

The least convincing aspect of the movie is, for me, McPherson falling for Laura. It’s not that I don’t believe he would, but there’s simply little screentime devoted to showing what he’s feeling about her. Most of the first half of the movie focuses, through flashbacks, on all the other characters rather than the detective himself, or how he’s responding to what he’s learning about Laura. The only scene that really shows that he’s taking a personal interest in her, in which he explores her apartment, comes just before she reappears. The scene was nearly cut from the the movie, and its absence would truly hurt the characters. As it is, McPherson’s affections don’t quite seem strong enough, but Andrews does sell them in the detective’s interactions with Laura.

Some would call Laura a perfect film. Personally, I’m more drawn to a classic that’s a bit rougher and stranger, like Gilda. Nonetheless, Laura is undoubtedly an essential film noir, consumately made, with some talented actors, and a plot that’s great fodder for the imagination and a pleasure to watch unfold onscreen.

Noir on a dark night: Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948)

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Sorry, Wrong Number’s plot is based in 1940s technology that well and truly dates it, but the film has lost none of its suspense over the years. The technology in question is the telephone, the clunky kind, with operators and switchboards keeping the connections going behind the scenes. Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), a bed-ridden heir to a toiletry products empire, overhears a disturbing conversation when she tries to make a call. It seems to be about a plan to kill a woman at 11:15 that night. Alone in her house, she calls everyone she can think of to try to prevent the murder, but encounters disinterest from the authorities and a bafflingly complex mystery involving the people in her own life. The danger may be closer to home than she first thought.

Leona is not a likeable character. The more we learn about her marriage and her illness, the more selfish and pathetic she becomes. It would be a mistake not to see that this is how Stanwyck plays the part. Aside from Leona’s old college friend, Sally (Ann Richards), everyone else in the film is only barely more pleasant, from Leona’s husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster), to her magnate father, J.B. (Ed Begley). None of them seem especially malicious, per se, but Sorry, Wrong Number is a true film noir in which anyone, no matter how well-intentioned, can be corrupted or simply make terrible mistakes.

The film is not just bleak, but at times achieves a downright eerie quality. Much of the story is told in flashbacks from multiple perspectives, strongly influenced by the teller’s bias or lack of knowledge. When Sally describes following Henry out to Staten Island, the things she witnesses are mystifyingly strange. The music and day-for-night filming make the mystery unnerving. And one of the last phone calls Leona takes is thoroughly cryptic, even as it tells us the facts we have been waiting to hear. The painting shown in this caller’s hotel room would be haunting even if Leona’s next call didn’t reveal how it reflects upon what that caller intends to do next.

Sorry, Wrong Number was adapted from a radio play, and clearly would work in audio form. However, Anatole Litvek gives the film some nice visual touches, such as Sally at a train station, trying to stay on the phone but out of her husband’s sight, or the scenes on Staten Island. He uses several long shots that tell a story in themselves, whether by moving slowly around a room to show the occupant’s belongings, or moving from a clock over to Leona in bed, then out her window and down a level to show a figure outside her house.

Sorry, Wrong Number is based upon a premise that is irresistible despite being dated, and involves a mystery that manages to be truly mysterious. We can easily guess that Leona may be the woman intended to die at 11:15, but the why of it is a complex question. The film has strong performances, particularly from Stanwyck and Lancaster. In fine noir style, it depicts a dark world in which everyone is connected and yet help still could not be further away.

Duryea in the spotlight: Black Angel (Roy William Neill, 1946)

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Dan Duryea is most renowned for playing villains and thugs, and he was so adept at giving these characters an unlikely charm that he deserves to be. He was capable of a greater range than this, however, as he shows in his role as Black Angel‘s tragic protagonist, Marty Blair. Blair is an alcoholic composer who has been badly treated by his wife, singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling). When Marlowe is strangled to death, Kirk Bennett (John Phillips), a married man whom she was blackmailing, is sentenced for the murder. Bennett’s wife, Catherine (June Vincent), believes he’s innocent and sets out to prove it. She enlists Blair, who becomes more interested in helping her after realising that the man he saw going into Marlowe’s building that night, Marko (Peter Lorre), was not Catherine’s husband. It isn’t long before Blair, recognising Catherine as another person who’s been hard done by, begins to fall for her.

Roy William Neill had plenty of experience directing B movies, and brings a polished style to Black Angel. The plot is clever but not overly convoluted, as film noir can sometimes be. Its emphasis on the lead characters’ musical talents gives it a freshness in comparison to other noirs, and it features a great twist ending that makes fine use of some of the genre’s darker tropes. Vincent is solid if not remarkable while Dowling is good enough to have deserved more screentime, but Lorre is excellent as always. The man doesn’t seem able to make a single uninteresting move.

All of this means that Black Angel is a pleasure to watch, even if you’re not comparing Blair to Duryea’s other noir roles. The difference is remarkable, however. Gone are the sneers and that nasal voice. Blair is a multi-layered character, and it’s impossible not to feel for him. Given more room in which to work, Duryea is outstanding. He even seems to know his way around a piano – the music is dubbed, so his hand movements wouldn’t match exactly anyway, but Duryea is close enough that he could well be playing.

Black Angel doesn’t manage to be an out and out classic. Nonethless, it is a self-contained and well-told film that doesn’t put a foot wrong. It doesn’t need Duryea to carry it – even though he could.

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.