Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Call Northside 777

I've commented quite a few times in the past about 20th Century Fox's docudramas. Another one that I haven't recommended before is coming up twice in the near future: Call Northside 777, today at 2:00 PM and tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM.

James Stewart stars as Jim McNeal, a reporter for one of the Chicago newspapers back in the days when all major cities in the US had multiple dailies competing against each other. He and his editor, Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb actually playing a good guy for once), come across a personal ad from a woman offering a $5,000 reward for information that will get her son out of prison. They figure it will make a good human interest story, and Jim is given the task of covering it.

Now, everybody in prison thinks they're innocent, and we wouldn't have a movie if there weren't any possibility that the man in prison might have been wrongly convicted. And besides, the old lady is the perfect story, almost impossibly sweet and devoted to her children, having worked for 20 years as a cleaning woman to scrape up that $5,000. And when McNeal does some cursory investigation, he discovers that there are some small discrepancies. But is the prisoner actually inncoent?

Well, that requires meeting the prisoner himself, one Frank Wieczek (Richard Conte). He too naturally protests his innocence, even though there are some things that look terrible, like his having told his wife to divorce him. But there are those discrepancies, and unsurprisingly, the police are blocking Jim simply because they're the police and never ever want to admit that they could possibly have made a mistake.

In seom ways Call Northside 777 looks like a tried and true formula: dogged reporter uncovers corruption and saves the day at the end against all odds. But Call Northside 777 rises above this for a number of reasons. First is the fact that it's told in a docudrama format. Fox when it made its docudramas tried to use authentic locations as much as possible, and the movie has a much better look as a result, more real and raw than even anything one might have seen in Warner Bros.' social dramas. Having Jimmy Stewart play the reporter is also a big help. He was always good at playing this sort of upright character fighting injustice. But Call Northside 777 was made not long after Stewart returned from World War II, and the experience gave his acting a much fuller dimension. His Jim McNeal is a man who has no illusions about the possibility that he's being led on a wild goose chase, and fits in well with the lower-class Chicago on which he's reporting.

I'm not certain if I'd call Call Norhtside 777 the best of Fox's docudramas, but it's right up there, nd well worth watching.

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