When originally released, Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 was heralded as a triumph of noir realism. As the first Hollywood feature shot on location in Chicago, the film was part of the vanguard of studio-produced noir in the late Forties and early Fifties that moved away from the stylized studio backlots that’d dominated the genre since its earliest days in favor of location shooting on the big city streets and small-town suburbs of America. But even in embracing this new verisimilitude, we see Hathaway insisting on a cinema of extremes.
The story is extreme: based on true events, the film follows Chicago journalist P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) as he uncovers and investigates a potential miscarriage of justice where a Polish-American named Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) was wrongfully arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for the murder of a police officer over a decade before. As he dives deeper into the case and discovers that evidence may have been tampered with and witnesses intimidated during the trial, he runs up against the “Thin Blue Line” as the Chicago PD closes ranks and stonewalls his investigation.
The storytelling is extreme: shot largely as a procedural, Hathaway takes great pains in depicting the minutiae of 1940s investigations, from the tireless pounding of pavement searching for witnesses, the eye-straining combing of police records, and the assiduous operations of forensic equipment to enlarge photos and transmit them across the state via a system that smacks of pre-internet file-sharing. And finally, the stylization itself is extreme in ways most of its peers actively avoided. The most obvious example is that, saving the opening title sequence, there’s little if any music, plunging the film into an incessant, clinical silence that reigns both during its tensest and dullest moments. Though one can admire the underlying principles behind this decision, one can’t help but feel that combined with Hathaway’s pacing the overall effect drains some of the film’s life and energy.
Regarded strictly as a cultural artifact, Call Northside 777 is merely adequate, notable more for what it represents as part of the then-shifting tide of noir than as a film in its own right. Jules Dassin’s The Naked City, a similar “on-location” police procedural shot on the streets of New York City and released the same year as Northside, is vastly superior in its utilization of documentary techniques, despite featuring an impressive score from Miklós Rózsa and Frank Skinner. Hathaway’s own Kiss of Death, released a year earlier, outdoes “Northside” with its location shooting of Manhattan and residential Queens—and that film occasionally veers into the realm of horror with its breakout performance by Richard Widmark as the psychopathic, old lady killing villain.
But there is one fascinating way Call Northside 777 remains relevant beyond its place within the noir canon. Whether Hathaway intended it or not, the film represents a powerful disillusioning towards the American justice system that when viewed through the lens of modern day police brutality and the #BlackLivesMatter movement seems almost shocking.
At the start of the film, McNeal is convinced that Wiecek is guilty. After all, the police department had caught him, the courts convicted him, and the prison system contained him. How could the system be wrong? But as he continues his investigation and uncovers more and more malfeasance—Wiecek’s lawyer was a drunkard who was disbarred shortly after the trial, a key piece of evidence may have been forged by police—his confidence in said system deteriorates. The film never goes so far as to actively declare the police and court system corrupt; in fact, it goes to lengths to depict said institutions as inherently benevolent. (The prison warden in charge of Wiecek is even depicted as a warm-hearted humanitarian! Try pulling that off now in this era of “for-profit” prisons.) But the corruption remains and must be challenged and corrected. This may not seem significant by today’s standards, but keep in mind the era the film was released in. In the immediate post-war years American civic pride was at an all-time high and any questioning of the institutional status quo was grounds for suspicion. Consider the case of Samuel Fuller’s noir classic Pickup on South Street, released a mere five years after Northside. When word got out that the main character, an apolitical subway pickpocket, scoffed when the government appealed to his sense of patriotism to help them recover a microfilm stolen by Soviet spies, none other than FBI director J. Edgar Hoover personally intervened and tried to force Fuller and producer Darryl F. Zanuck to change it.
Call Northside 777 might not be the revolutionary piece of anti-police state propaganda many might want, but it does reveal a growing cynicism towards American institutions that wouldn’t see full flower in mainstream studio filmmaking for another few decades. In this way, the film is more than just a stylistic curio, it’s a portent of things to come.