Posted by Susan Doll on September 29, 2008
On a lonely Saturday night late last June, I walked to a tiny theater in my neighborhood to see Call Northside 777. Located behind a bank, this unusual movie venue is one of Chicago’s unsung gems. The Bank of America Theater is devoted to projecting classic Hollywood movies on the big screen – as they were intended to be shown and seen. Though the theater has its loyal patrons, it does very little promotion or advertizing. Despite this, the theater was packed with excited Chicago residents eager to see a movie about their hometown shot in their hometown. They were not disappointed.
The chief cachet of Call Northside 777 is its use of locations, and few movies shot in Chicago can match this film’s depiction of the City with Big Shoulders. From aerial views of the city’s magnificent skyscrapers to night photography of its seedy bar areas to long shots of authentic ethnic neighborhoods, Call Northside 777 offers an unglamorous, gritty portrait of Chicago that suits the city’s personality and matches the hardy nature of its residents. The location work provides much more than an authentic background; it is so well integrated into the narrative that it enhances the viewer’s understanding of the characters and the story. And, that is the main reason I was so taken with this tightly wound crime drama. I would recommend it to everyone, even those not fortunate to live in my adopted city.
Call Northside 777 is based on a true tale of police corruption, hard-nosed reporters, and tough working- class neighborhoods – which makes it a familiar story for Chicagoans. Back in the Windy City on December 9, 1932, in the Polish section of the Back of the Yards neighborhood, two men shot a policeman in Vera Walush’s deli, which had a speakeasy in the back room. 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 for the crime, then convicted of murder based on the testimony of Walush. Sentenced to 99 years in Stateville Prison near Joliet, the two working-class Poles were destined to die in prison, except for the devotion of Majczek’s mother to her son. She placed an ad in a newspaper offering a $5000 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 a real example of investigative journalism, tracked down enough evidence to point to the innocence of Majczek. Walush’s testimony had been highly suspect, and most believe she was pushed into identifying the two men. The evidence – which also revealed that police rode roughshod over proper procedure in order to “prove” the guilt of the two Polish men – was enough to satisfy a parole board. Twelve years after his conviction, Joseph Majczek walked out of Stateville 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 they titled Call Northside 777, which was supposedly the phone number that the innocent man’s mother used in her newspaper ad. However, the actual phone number in the ad had been 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 principle 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 Jimmy 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 not only the spirit of the story but also the essence of Chicago.
Some of that “essence” isn’t necessarily positive. The corruption exposed in the story, including the tactics of the police as they rushed to make an arrest and then covered their tracks by tampering with evidence, is all too familiar to Chicago residents. Just this past summer, a policeman was tragically murdered in the city, and a suspect was arrested within days. Recently released for insufficient evidence, the former suspect alleges that he was the victim of police brutality as authorities tried to force a confession. (The murder has yet to be solved; the brutality charges yet to be proven.) And, in 2003, former Governor George Ryan pardoned four men from Stateville who were wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, then he relieved all the inmates on Death Row from the death penalty because he said that the system of justice in Illinois was broken. Such recent events are echoes of Call Northside 777, making the film resonate with Chicago audiences in a way it might not with others.
For those unfamiliar with “the Chicago way,” the opening sequence features a voice-over narrator who offers a brief history of the city, which sets the stage for the violence and corruption that are part of the story. After a shot of the famous Chicago Fire, which was lifted from the 1937 movie In Old Chicago, the narrator proclaims that from the ashes emerged “a new Chicago, a city of brick and brawn, concrete and guts, with a short history of violence beating in its pulse.” The words could easily describe modern-day Chicago. A montage of the city’s real-life newspapers from the late 1940s follows, which is a sad reminder of how far the popularity of newspapers has fallen in our Internet-crazy society. The montage features the building fronts of The Chicago Times, The Chicago Daily News, The Herald-American, The Chicago Tribune, and The Chicago Sun, which is bound to make city natives nostalgic for the days of Mike Royko and other columnists/reporters who were highly respected and widely recognized. Today, only the Tribune and the merged Sun-Times are left.
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, underscoring 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.
Later in the film, we see the poor, working-class neighborhood where Tillie lives. Her tiny apartment is located in a dark alley between two wood-frame houses. A huge church anchors the long shot that opens and closes this scene, suggesting the goodness and faith of this community, especially Tillie. The church is Holy Trinity located on N. Noble. Both the Wrigley Building and Holy Trinity are actual locations, but director Henry Hathaway uses them to their best symbolic advantage. Authentic locations do not preclude a deeper significance.
In that regard, the creepiest 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. According to Hollywood on Lake Michigan by Arnie Bernstein, the exterior of the building is actually the 725 S. Honore 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, sinister-looking location, and the interior shots (probably done on a studio set) suggest she is living on the dark edges of society where marginal people survive in a place between our world and hell. Yet, we have little pity for the unrepentant Skutnik who refuses to help by recanting her story.
The most talked-about sequence occurs just prior to this scene. McNeal scours the bars and taverns of the Polish neighborhood looking for Skutnik in a lengthy montage that serves as a snapshot of the “real” Chicago, circa late 1940s. It’s not the Chicago often 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 is a seamless combination of shots and scenes from around the city as well as authentic locations intercut with studio sets, though the illusion is that McNeal is specifically combing the old Polish neighborhoods. There is a wonderful shot of a streetcar lumbering down the middle of Milwaukee Avenue, with the sign for Kosinzki Jewelers visible in the background. Milwaukee is still the site of many Polish businesses, but the block shown in the film has completely changed. In another scene, McNeal visits a bar with a sign in Polish on its outside wall: “Zamkniete, 20 Lipca do a Siepnia.” But, the shot of the reporter climbing the subway stairs and turning down a busy street of taverns advertizing Kingsbury Pale Beer and Schlitz on Draught was filmed just south of the Loop, an area nowhere near Milwaukee Avenue. In my favorite shot from this sequence, the camera watches McNeal through the dirty window of a tavern as he crosses the street, then pans with him as he comes through the door and moves down the bar. I appreciate the skill of the cameraman who racks focus without notice as McNeal moves from the background to the foreground and then comes indoors from outside. In the background I can read the sign over a local Chicago brewery – Ambrosia Brewery Co. I wonder if there was a beer actually named “Ambrosia,” and if anyone in Chicago remembers it.
The sequence is alive with people on the go, ablaze with gaudy neon, and authentic with recognizable street names and addresses. This is the sequence that grabs the attention of Chicagoans and tugs at their hearts because many of these areas and businesses no longer exist, having fallen under the wheels of progress. It is effective in its authenticity, underscoring why McNeal gets nowhere in a neighborhood where he cannot speak the language. And, it is irresistible in its realism, capturing a time and place that is long gone.
The unglamorous, naturalistic style of the cinematography by the talented and underrated Joe MacDonald in one of characteristics that makes this film an example of the semi-documentary drama, a subgenre briefly popular in the immediate post-World War II era. Influenced by Italian neorealism and inspired by the advancements in cinema equipment during the war, this type of film combined some of the characteristics of documentary with narrative filmmaking. Louis De Rochemont, the producer of the March of Time newsreels, came to 20th Century Fox after the war 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. I would also recommend Call Northside 777, which was made at the tail end of the semi-documentary cycle, because I think it is the best example of this brief but influential trend in movie-making. (Other examples include The House on 92nd Street, The Naked City, 13 Rue Madeleine, and Panic in the Streets.)
In addition to the naturalistic cinematography, Call Northside 777 features other characteristics of the semi-documentary drama. It is a crime drama 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; there’s no deep psychological motivations to explain the characters; there’s no one who serves as comic relief; there’s not even any background music. It was the serious, no-nonsense style that attracted Jimmy Stewart to the film. After the war, an older, mature Stewart wanted to get away from the naïve, 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 presaged his work in the 1950s with Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock.
Another feature of this type of film 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. Some of these technologies are now outdated, and I wonder if some viewers lose patience with these scenes. But I wish someone could explain to me today how Wi-Fi works with the same clarity that the film explains these technologies.
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 Leonard Keeler, who actually innovated the polygraph 20 years earlier. Talk about coming straight from the horse’s mouth!
There is much to recommend in Call Northside 777, which is now my favorite Jimmy Stewart film. It is a stellar example of a type or subgenre of film that influenced crime dramas over the next two decades. It marked an important film in the evolution of one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars. But, most of all, it offers a powerful example of location shooting in which the locales not only look fresh – even today – but are integral to the fabric of the narrative. Call Northside 777 shows a Chicago that is vibrant, hardy, straightforward, and a bit rough around the edges – just like its people.
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