Saturday, January 1, 2011

#19: Call Northside 777


Director Henry Hathaway's filmography as listed in the "Known For" section of Imdb makes for an impressive reading. It has 3 John Wayne movies - True Grit that won John Wayne his only Oscar, the Western Magnum Opus How the West Was Won and The Sons of Katie Elder. The fourth is the Monroe- Cotten classic - Niagara. For all it's worth, this needs to change because Call Northside 777 is too good a movie to be ignored from amongst his "Known For" filmography and more people should start knowing Henry Hathaway as the man who directed it. More so, because it's a genre that is different from his traditional strength - The Great American Western.

The story is set in the 1940s and where an earnest reporter McNeal(Jimmy Stewart) starts tracing the events leading to the arrest and conviction of Frank Wiecek ( Richard Conte - Thieves Highway, Godfather) in 1932. McNeal has the support of his editor ( Lee Cobb) who initially goads him into pursuing this case. McNeal half-heartedly pursues the case with the only intention of closing the story immediately. Things take a turn however, when a couple of his articles create public interest and McNeal finds his own interest and curiosity piqued enough for him to take the Chicago Police Department head-on.

With a tight linear screenplay, the director focuses on the emotions of the accused and his poor mother who scrubs floors saving money in the hope to see her son free some day. It is commendable to see the movie build-up steadily as the director saves his best for the last 20 minutes. In spite of dealing with the sensitive human emotions there are no over-the-top dramatic moments but a series of neatly stitched events that take the story forward. Jimmy Stewart does what he does best - appear vulnerable and likeable while putting in a restrained performance that makes you root for the underdog that he is in the movie. Lee Cobb, the bad man of classics like On the Waterfront and Twelve Angry Men plays the soothing role of the catalyst that ignites McNeal's interest in the case and impresses you with his realistic turn as the chief editor.

Call Northside 777
is an extremely good investment of time because of it's story that's set in a time when the power of the written word was revered. The fact that this is a true story embellishes the charm of the movie even further. It will also re-establish the slightly shaken faith of cynical media consumers like me that press indeed could be the fourth estate in society- strong enough to change anything.