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Call Northside 777 (1948), one of the finest examples of the semi-documentary drama, is based on a true tale of police corruption, hard-nosed reporters, and tough working-class neighborhoods. Influenced by Italian neorealism and inspired by the advancements in cinema equipment during the war, semi-documentary dramas combined characteristics of nonfiction film with those of narrative filmmaking. Louis De Rochemont, the renowned producer of the March of Time newsreels, came to 20th Century Fox after World War II to put together a unit to produce several semi-documentary dramas. At March of Time, De Rochemont had treated his news stories like dramas, giving them coherence by structuring them with a beginning, middle, and end. At Fox, he brought documentary conventions to dramas. Directed by Henry Hathaway, Call Northside 777 was produced in 1947 near the end of the semi-documentary cycle, which also included The House on 92nd Street (1945), The Naked City (1948), 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), and Panic in the Streets (1950).
The real-life crime that inspired Call Northside 777 was perfect for this type of drama. It began during the early days of the Depression in Chicago when two men shot a policeman in Vera Walush's deli, located in the Eastern European neighborhood known as the Back of the Yards. The police responded quickly, sweeping the neighborhood with great fury in seeking justice for the death of one of their own. Two young Polish men, Joseph Majczek and Teddy Marcinkiewicz, were arrested and convicted of murder based on the testimony of Walush. Sentenced to 99 years in Statesville Prison near Joliet, the two working-class Poles would have died in prison if not for the devotion of Majczek's mother. Determined to prove her son's innocence, she placed an ad in a newspaper offering a $5,000 reward for any information about the crime.
Two Chicago Times reporters, James McGuire (the investigator) and Jack McPhaul (the rewrite man), discovered Mrs. Majczek's ad and, in an example of real investigative journalism, tracked down enough evidence to suggest that Majczek was innocent. Walush's testimony had been highly suspect, and most believe she was pushed into identifying the two men. The evidence was enough to satisfy a parole board. Twelve years after his conviction, Joseph Majczek walked out of Statesville a free man, and McGuire received a Pulitzer Prize for his work. Marcinkiewicz was not quite so fortunate. The Chicago Crime Commission eventually slogged its way through an investigation of Marcinkiewicz's case, but without a crusading reporter to do the work, red tape and official apathy kept this innocent man in prison until 1950.
In 1947, 20th Century Fox bought the rights to this story for a film version to be titled Call Northside 777, which was supposed to be the phone number of the devoted mother. However, the actual phone number in the ad was the far-less memorable GRO-1758. The film made several other changes to the story for the sake of drama, including the names of the principal characters. McGuire became James McNeal, who uses the byline P.J. McNeal in the film, and the Majczek family became the Wieceks. Vera Walush was renamed Wanda Skutnik, while Marcinkiewicz was reduced to a minor character named Tomek Zaleska. McPhaul was eliminated from the story entirely, which allowed star James Stewart to play McNeal as a lone reporter working against the odds to make a difference with his story. Despite these changes, the film captures the spirit of the story, authentically portrays an immigrant neighborhood in a big American city, and depicts the nature of journalism in the postwar era when modern technology was just beginning to make an impact on that profession.
Semi-documentary dramas took advantage of smaller cameras, faster film stock, and less cumbersome sound equipment to shoot on location. Shooting most of the exteriors of this film in actual Chicago neighborhoods and buildings gave the film a sense of authenticity that most true-crime dramas could not match. The unglamorous, naturalistic style of the cinematography by the talented and underrated Joe MacDonald perfectly captured the tough, gritty immigrant neighborhood known as the Back of the Yards, located south and west of the old Union Stock Yards. The stock yards are long gone, and the Back of the Yards no longer hosts the hoards of Eastern European immigrants who had come to the city to work, giving the film an added importance as a historical snapshot of postwar Chicago.
The first Chicago location used to great effect is the inside of the Wrigley Building, where McNeal finds Tillie Wiecek scrubbing floors late at night. McNeal wanders down a long, long hallway, and his footsteps echo loudly, emphasizing how empty and lonely a big-city building can be after hours. There is no background music throughout the film, and such sound effects as footsteps, train whistles, traffic noises, and tinny music from neighborhood taverns add a great deal to the documentary-like realism of the film. But, the Wrigley Building is more than an actual interior inside a real Chicago landmark. The shot of Tillie is framed so that the heavy archways in the ceiling seem to press down on her as she scrubs on her hands and knees, suggesting the weight of the burden that she has been carrying for a dozen years.
In contrast, Tillie's apartment is located in a dark alley between two wood-frame houses. Holy Trinity Cathedral anchors the long shot that opens and closes this scene, suggesting the goodness and faith of this community, especially for Tillie. Both the Wrigley Building and Holy Trinity are actual locations, but director Henry Hathaway uses them to their best symbolic advantage.
The most sinister Chicago location is the residence on Honore Street where McNeal finally tracks down elusive witness Wanda Skutnik, whom he suspects was coerced into identifying Wiecek and his friend. Supposedly, the exterior of the building is the actual residence where the real-life Vera Walush had lived. The exteriors were shot at night, which was still difficult in 1947 when this film was made. The lighting is about as low key as it could go and still get an image, not only painting this neighborhood as dangerous but creating a tense, foreboding atmosphere. McNeal discovers a down-on-her-luck Skutnik living in the squalor of a dilapidated boarding house. The dark lighting, menacing location, and the interior shots (probably done on a studio set) paint her as a desperate character on the dark fringes of society.
The most celebrated sequence occurs when McNeal scours the bars and taverns of the old Polish neighborhood on Milwaukee Avenue looking for Skutnik in a lengthy montage that captures the "real" Chicago, circa late 1940s. It's not the Chicago typically depicted in movies, with its skyscraper skyline, picturesque ballparks, and Magnificent Mile of big-name stores on Michigan Avenue; it's the Chicago of neighborhoods, taverns, and local businesses in tiny storefronts. Brilliantly edited, the sequence seamlessly combines shots and scenes from authentic locations with studio sets. In one scene, McNeal visits a bar with a sign in Polish on its outside wall: "Zamkniete, 20 Lipca do a Siepnia." In another shot, the camera watches McNeal through the dirty window of a real neighborhood tavern as he crosses the street. The camera pans with him as he comes through the door and moves down the bar. The cameraman skillfully racks focus as McNeal moves from the background to the foreground and from the outdoors to the interior of the dark, grubby bar.
Like other semi-documentary dramas, Call Northside 777 is a crime story shot on location and based on an actual case in which the investigation and evidence are brought center stage. Nothing detracts from the investigation: There's no romantic subplot, no deep psychological motivations to explain the characters, no comic relief, and very little background music. It was this serious approach that attracted James Stewart to the film. After the war, an older, mature Stewart wanted to get away from the nave, boyish characters of his earlier films, which were often heavily sentimental. Call Northside 777 provided him with an opportunity to play a cynical, hard-boiled reporter, which anticipated his work in the 1950s with Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock.
Another feature of this genre is the "voice-of-God" narrator, which was a characteristic borrowed directly from documentaries of the period. In an authoritative voice, the narrator offers background context or ties the investigation together, giving the film the connotation of "truth." Adding to the sense of realism is the no-nonsense main character, who typically works for or represents an institution or agency. He is well-versed in proper procedures and up on the latest technology to help him do his job more efficiently and with greater success. A lot of screen time is spent on explaining procedures, or on detailing that technology. In Call Northside 777, the key to getting the evidence to help Wiecek involves blowing up a photo to see a specific detail that will prove that Skutnik is lying. Then the enlarged photos are sent over the wire service to the parole board in Springfield. Both the photo enlargement process and the wire service are explained in thorough detail. Even the inner workings of a typewriter are illustrated through extreme close-ups of the keys as McNeal types one of his stories.
The best example of the wonders of modern technology occurs when Wiecek is given a lie detector test. Much screen time is devoted to administering the test and explaining each stage of the process. And, the person handling the proceedings is none other than Leonarde Keeler, who actually co-invented the polygraph 20 years earlier.
Though short-lived, the semi-documentary drama proved influential in its use of location work and naturalistic cinematography--both hallmarks of dramas for the next two decades.
Producer: Otto Lang for 20th Century Fox
Director: Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: Jerome Cady, Jay Dratler, Leonard Hoffman, and Quentin Reynolds based on articles by James P. McGuire and Jack McPhaul
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
Editor: J. Watson Webb, Jr.
Art Director: Lyle Wheeler and Mark-Lee Kirk
Music: Alfred Newman
Costume Designer: Kay Nelson
Cast: P. James McNeal (James Stewart), Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb), Laura McNeal (Helen Walker), Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde), Tillie Wiecek (Kasia Orzazewski), Helen Wiecek Rayska (Joanne de Bergh), K. L. (Howard Smith), Chairman of the Parole Board (Moroni Olsen), Sam Faxon (John McIntire), Martin Burns (Paul Harvey).
by Susan Doll