Cast & Crew
Lee J. Cobb
On 9 Dec 1932, during Chicago's violent Prohibition period, police officer John W. Bundy is murdered while he drinks at a speakeasy operated by Wanda Skutnik. Following a tip from a bootlegger, police question Frank Wiecek, who has a minor police record, about his friend Tomek Zaleska, who asserts that he was home at the time of the murder. Finding some inconsistencies in Frank's statements, police hold him on suspicion of the crime. After six weeks of hiding out, Tomek surrenders to the police, and while he maintains that he is innocent, he and Frank are convicted of the murder, based on Wanda's identification of them as the masked assailants, and are sentenced to ninety-nine years at Stateville Penitentiary. On 11 Oct 1944, Brian Kelly, editor of the Chicago Times , spots an ad in the personal notices placed by Tillie Wiecek, Frank's mother, offering a $5,000 reward for the killers of Officer Bundy and instructing those with information to "Call Northside 777." Kelly sends reporter P. James McNeal to investigate, and when Jim locates Tillie, who works as a scrubwoman, she tells him that she has saved the reward money over the past eleven years. Although he believes Frank to be guilty, Jim writes a sympathetic article about Tillie. When Kelly asks for a follow-up interview of Frank, Jim hesitates, but writes a second article implying possible police and political corruption after Frank reveals that the police deliberately kept him from seeing his lawyer while he was being interrogated, and that Wanda did not identify him as the killer the first two times she was questioned. The article provokes much response, and Kelly asks Jim to interview Frank's ex-wife Helen, who divorced him after he was imprisoned. Helen tells Jim that Frank begged her to divorce him for the sake of their son, who, Frank felt, needed a name untainted by the crime. Jim's story about Helen causes Frank to send for him, and at the penitentiary, Frank angrily tells him to stop writing about his family. When the warden informs Jim that the other prisoners believe Frank and Tomek are innocent, Jim interviews Tomek and offers to help him get paroled if he confesses who was with him when he committed the murder. Tomek's protestation of innocence finally convinces Jim that neither of the men are guilty, and he tells Frank that he will now slant the articles in his favor and will dig into the story. After Frank passes a lie detector test, Jim's next article proclaims Frank's innocence. Despite antagonism from police angry that Jim is trying to help a cop killer, he gets access to Frank's booking record, which is dated 23 Dec 1932. What Jim really needs, however, is Frank's arrest record, which, if it is earlier than the booking date, will support Frank's contentions that Wanda had the opportunity to see him before she identified him, and that a police captain induced her to name Frank as one of the killers. Although Jim learns that the police captain died in 1938, he locates the arrest book, which had been separated from the files, and photographs the page listing Frank's arrest date as 22 Dec 1932. After Jim's next article charges political corruption, he is summoned with Kelly to a meeting with the paper's publisher, K. L. Palmer, Sam Faxon from the state's attorney's office and Robert Winston, an aide to the governor. To resolve the governmental objections to the articles, Winston proposes to conduct a hearing of the pardon board the following week. If Frank is exonerated, he will be pardoned, but if not, the paper must agreed to drop the story. Palmer, with Kelly and Jim's consent, agrees. Winston warns, however, that should Frank lose, the record of his failure could hurt his chances to be paroled in thirty years. Martin Burns, the paper's attorney, is skeptical, as he does not think that they have sufficient evidence in Frank's favor. Jim then reveals that he located a photograph showing Wanda arriving at the police station at the same time as Frank, and states that the photo is evidence that Wanda lied about not seeing Frank before she identified him in the police line. Burns, though, maintains that the burden will be on Jim to prove that the photograph was taken on 22 Dec and advises him to discredit Wanda. Working on a tip that Wanda used to run around with a stockyards worker, and thinking that she may still be in the liquor business, Jim circulates her picture in bars in the Polish section behind the stockyards, but gets no leads. He then writes an article about the search and includes his own photo. Two days before the parole board is to convene, a woman sees him in a bar and sells him Wanda's address. Jim finds Wanda, but despite the $5,000 reward, she angrily throws Jim out after he implies she fears retribution from someone. Without Wanda's change of testimony, Burns advises Jim that Frank will lose the hearing, then goes to Springfield to ask that the case be withdrawn so that it will not go on Frank's record. Kelly has Jim break the news to Tillie in person, and although she cries and says that she has no friends left, she is comforted by her faith in God. In a cab on the way to the newspaper office, Jim reads about a new enlargement process that the police have used in a forgery case. He immediately goes to the police photo lab, where the technician, in sympathy with the case because of Jim's articles, agrees to blow up a section of the photograph showing both Frank and Wanda. After calling Burns, Jim flies to Springfield to stall the hearing until Kelly can send the photo over the Associated Press wire to a nearby newspaper office. He tells the parole board that he hopes the enlargement will show the date of a newspaper being hawked in the photo to be 22 Dec 1932. Despite Faxon's objections, the chairman agrees to go to the newspaper office. The wire photo reveals the date to be 22 Dec, and Frank is released from prison. Jim reminds Frank that not many governments in the world would admit such an error. On the outside Frank greets his son, his mother and Helen, who introduces her present husband, Rayska, who promises Frank that he can be with his son anytime. Content, Frank says it is a good world outside.
Lee J. Cobb
Joanne De Bergh
J. M. Kerrigan
Samuel S. Hinds
E. G. Marshall
William Post Jr.
Edward Peil Sr.
Frank Cory Jr.
W. D. Flick
R. A. Klune
Charles Le Maire
James P. Mcguire
Walter M. Scott
J. Watson Webb Jr.
Darryl F. Zanuck
Call Northside 777 (1948) - Call Northside 777
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 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 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
Call Northside 777 (1948) - Call Northside 777
Call Northside 777
Released in 1948, Northside is an early film in the "docu-noir" genre. The movie is based on actual events, as the opening credits, printed on an official-looking dossier, proudly announce. James Stewart stars as P.J. McNeal of the Chicago Times. His editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb) sends him to interview a cleaning lady who has taken out an ad offering $5,000 for information about an 11-year-old crime. (The ad directs people to call Northside 777, thus the film's title). The cleaning lady (Kasia Orzazewski) is the mother of a convicted cop killer, Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte). She has scrubbed floors and saved pennies these last 11 years to put up a reward for information that will clear her Frankie, whom she swears is innocent.
Stewart's hardened reporter doesn't believe that Wiecek is innocent, but the "faith of a mother" angle will play well enough at the Times, so he writes the story. It plays so well that Kelly assigns him a followup story, sending him first to the Stateville prison to interview Frank Wiecek, and then to visit Wiecek's ex-wife and son. Once again, MacNeil finds a story that sells papers, but he doesn't think he has found an innocent man.
Just as MacNeil is starting to get bored with the story, Wiecek requests one last meeting. But instead of telling MacNeil a sob story, Wiecek tells MacNeil to stop writing about him. Wiecek had divorced his wife so that his son could grow up with another, unsullied name. By running a photo of his son, MacNeil destroyed what Frank gave up his marriage for. "I'd rather spend a thousand years here," he tells MacNeil, than have another word written about his family.
Something about Wiecek's sincerity, along with the warden's belief that Wiecek is probably innocent, makes MacNeil start to believe him. He arranges for a polygraph (a relatively new invention in 1948), which Wiecek passes, and starts investigating police records from 11 years ago. A deal with the governor sets a deadline for MacNeil's investigation, and adds the needed pressure to bring about the story's resolution.
As noted in the informative audio commentary by writers James Ursini and Alain Silver, this is the first role in the second half of Jimmy Stewart's career. (The DVD never mentions that Ursini and Silver are authors and film historians, surely an oversight by Fox.) Call Northside 777 sets a darker tone, presaging the roles Stewart take in the next decades. There is a big change from the young Stewart -- gangly, naive, and good-natured in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and You Can't Take it With You -- to the older Stewart who spied on his neighbors in Rear Window and worked with Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann. Call Northside 777 marks the beginning of that change.
The movie itself seems a little light to be considered "film noir." Some of the low-key lighting and deep cinematography (by Joseph MacDonald) is worthy of the term, and the crime story fits the genre, but Northside lacks the sense of doom and foreboding that one expects from film noir. The movie even introduces MacNeil's wife (Helen Walker) and their cheery apartment, which grounds the film too neatly in middle-class reality for this to really be noir.
But Ursini and Silver offer the kind of insight only multiple viewings or a trip to the library would offer, and their commentary puts the film in its proper context. They prefer to call Northside "docu-noir" or "docudrama" and not "film noir," although they acknowledge it may lie in the gray area on the fringes of the genre.
They also offer their encyclopedic knowledge of movies from the era. For example, they describe the real-life events that inspired Northside, and how they differ from what's on-screen. They also explain how the movie fits into the careers of all the film's major contributors, including Jimmy Stewart, director Henry Hathaway, cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, and most of the supporting actors too. They even explain how it fits into Fox's history -- Northside was an early film in a separate division dedicated to making movies based on reality, using real locations (the footage from inside the Stateville prison is unprecedented). Ursini and Silver are two guys you'd definitely want on your trivia team.
They're not only film encyclopedias, they also explain how the framing, lighting, or editing affects the emotion in a scene, or how 1949 audiences might react differently from modern audiences. For example, they comment on the film's obsession with technology -- the polygraph scene goes on way too long for modern audiences, but at the time, it would have been more of a novelty.
The DVD also comes with a four-page booklet -- not much compared to a Criterion release, and not much of a supplement to the commentary track, but it's still informative, and a nice touch from Fox.
As the movie ends, Call Northside 777 leaps 54 years into the future, making it a surprisingly timely film. It ends with Stewart standing in front of an Illinois penitentiary, marveling that "It's a big thing when a sovereign state admits an error. Remember this, there aren't many governments of the world that would do it." The scene calls to mind the headlines from 2003, when then-Illinois governor George Ryan suspended the death penalty in his state after mistakes had been found, thanks to the hard work of some journalism students.
Call it a case of life imitating art imitating life.
For more information about Call Northside 777, visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order Call Northside 777, go to TCM Shopping.
by Marty Mapes
Call Northside 777
You look nice. Will you marry me?- P.J. McNeal
I did.- Laura McNeal
Thelma Ritter's role as the Police Captain's Secretary was mostly deleted from the released print, but she can still briefly be seen and heard in one scene in which she tells 'Stewart, James' the Police Captain will see him in his office.
The following statement appears after the opening credits: "This is a true story. This film was photographed in the State of Illinois using wherever possible, the actual locales associated with the story." According to information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department and the Produced Scripts Collection, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, studio publicity and various newspaper articles, the actual story occurred in much the same manner as was presented in the film. Joe Majczek and Theodore Marcinkiewicz were convicted of the murder of officer William D. Lundy, who was killed on December 9, 1932 in a speakeasy owned by Vera Walush in the Southside of Chicago. It was postulated that because the city was preparing for the 1933 World's Fair, Mayor Anton Cermak issued orders for a cleanup of the city, and pressure May have been put on the police department to arrest someone for the murder of the police officer. Majczek's mother Tillie scrubbed floors in office buildings for years to raise money to buy information to free her son, and in 1944, she placed an ad in the Chicago Times. Reporter James P. McGuire of the Times investigated the story and after proving to the Illinois parole board that Majczek was innocent, Majczek was pardoned by the Governor of Illinois and freed in August 1945. (Marcinkiewicz was not released until 1950.) According to a June 20, 1947 Hollywood Reporter news item, Majczek was awarded $24,000 by the Illinois legislature as compensation for his ordeal. Tillie died in 1964, and Majczek, who remarried and became an insurance agent, died in 1983. The real killer or killers were never found.
Time reported on the case in August 1945 when Majczek was released. After Reader's Digest published a story entitled "Tillie Scrubbed On" in December 1946, Twentieth Century-Fox sent producer Otto Lang and writer Leonard Hoffman to Chicago in January 1947 to interview participants and writers connected with the story. In February 1947, Fox purchased from McGuire the rights to an unpublished story and other material concerning Majczek. McGuire subsequently was hired as a technical advisor on the film. Fox also paid for releases from a number of persons whom they characterized in the film, including Tillie and Joe Majczek and Majczek's former wife. The company failed, however, to obtain a release from Vera Walush, portrayed as Wanda Skutnik in the film, who owned the speakeasy where the murder was committed and whose testimony identifying Majczek as the murderer led to his conviction. Although McGuire, Lang and Fox's legal counsel judged there to be little chance that Walush, who was ill at the time, would file a suit, she did so on May 1950. In her suit, Walush, who was by then known as Mrs. Vera Walush Kasulis, asked for $500,000 and claimed that the picture caused her to be "subject to dishonor and humiliation." Fox settled the suit in October 1954, paying Kasulis $25,000 and agreeing not to reissue the film in any theater or to any local television station within the municipal limits of Chicago.
In August 2, 1947 memo to Lang, director Henry Hathaway and writer Jay Dratler, executive producer Darryl F. Zanuck commented, "There is a big Polish population in the United States. You will note that I have calmed down some of the dialogue that tends to indicate that all Poles are not on the side of the law, but I think perhaps Dratler should go even further in toning it down. We should not definitely say that this is a Polish neighborhood. Perhaps we could just refer to it as a very tough neighborhood where the people always stick together and protect one another from outsiders, etc." In a March 10, 1947 letter from PCA Director Joseph I. Breen to the studio, included in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, Breen wrote, "we suggest that you substitute some other word ... for 'Polack.' This derogatory reference is liable to give offense to a great many motion picture patrons." The PCA also deemed an early screenplay to be "not acceptable because of its highly questionable portrayal of the police." Later versions of the screenplay were approved, although after filming was completed, the studio cut the scene of the policeman being killed to comply with a Production Code provision that "officers of the law must not be shown dying at the hands of criminals."
According to Hollywood Reporter news items, Louis King was originally set to direct the picture, which was to star Henry Fonda and Lloyd Nolan. Madame Leopoldine Konstantin was originally signed to play "Tillie Wiecek." Leonarde Keeler, the inventor of the lie detector, played himself in the film, as did Chicago Times photographer Bill Vendetta. Call Northside 777 marked the production debut of Otto Lang, who had previously directed pictures for Fox; the American film debut of Dutch actress Joanne de Bergh; and the screen debut of radio actress Betty Garde. The picture was shot in Chicago at numerous locations including the C.B. & Q. railroad yards, "Skid Row" and "Bughouse Square" in the South Wabash and South State Street slum districts, the Polish quarter and the Criminal Courts building. Scenes were also shot at the Illinois State Prison in Springfield. The photo lab sequence was filmed at the Douglas Aircraft Co. in Santa Monica, CA, and some shooting was done at the Los Angeles Times building.
It was Zanuck's intention for the film to use a "semi-documentary" style of mixed realism and drama, which Fox and other studios had used in a number of films made during the previous few years. In a memo dated March 5, 1947, he wrote, "While it is our intention to tell a hard-hitting, factual, semi-documentary story like The House on 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeleine and Boomerang, we cannot ignore drama any more than these films ignored drama." Daily Variety, in their review of the film, stated, "This one sticks more closely to the documentary pattern than its predecessors." Hollywood Reporter commented, "Few motion picture formulas have proved so continuously effective as the semi-documentary technique which takes a real-life story and presents it as a straight-from-the-shoulder statement of facts. Drama, then, is enhanced by its accuracy and emotional strength is drawn from its realism."
On October 7, 1948, Screen Guild Theatre presented a radio broadcast of Call Northside 777 with James Stewart, Richard Conte and Pat O'Brien, and on December 9, 1949, Screen Directors' Playhouse broadcast a version of the story starring Stewart and Bill Conrad. A television adaptation of the story was broadcast under the title False Witness in January 1957 for the 20th Century-Fox Hour.