Call Northside 777 (20th Century-Fox). One of the current trends in movies is a tendency to shoot stories based on actual fact, in actual places. The leader in making this kind of movie is 20th Century-Fox, which has proved with The House on 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeleine, Boomerang! and Kiss of Death that semi-documentary "locale" films can compete successfully with studio fiction. All of these films except Boomerang! were directed by Henry Hathaway. Hathaway's new picture, Call Northside 777, is a fine addition to the list.
Northside is based on the true story (TIME, Aug. 27, 1945) of one Joe Majczek, a Chicagoan charged with the murder of a policeman in 1932 and sentenced to 99 years in Stateville Penitentiary. Majczek was cleared, almost 13 years later, through the efforts of his mother and of a reporter for the Chicago Times.
In the movie, the mother (Kasia Orzazewski) has scrubbed floors and half-starved herself during those years to raise $5,000 which she hopes might persuade someone into giving new information about the old, dead case. When the reporter (James Stewart) first looks her up, he has no doubts of her son's (Richard Conte) guilt; he merely plays her story for its human interest. It is good "circulation copy" and he follows it up industriously. But soon he begins to smell something fishy.
The harder he works the fishier the old case gets. He comes to believe in the prisoner's innocence. Before he knows it, he has much of Chicago's population with him and the whole of Chicago's police force against him. He has to steal evidence from the hostile cops, track down a reluctant witness through some wonderfully sinister slums, and finally win his argument in a well-contrived photofinish.
It takes a lot of integrity and a lot of finely disciplined inventiveness to understand and respect the spirit of a true story, to stay absolutely faithful to it, and to give it shape and edge as drama and as popular entertainment. The makers of Northside had all that it takes and then some. Honestly and resourcefully filmed, the picture was shot, for the most part, against the Chicago backgrounds where the actual events took place. The sound track, as cleanly intelligent as the camera work, deserves a special Oscar: except in the dives, where instrumental music is proper, practically the only music heard is the magically evocative natural music of a big city.
The players try to be as true to life as the living city, and many of them come very close to it. James Stewart manages to mug a little now & then, but by & large his performance is exceptionally modest, and as good as his best. The Polish actress, Kasia Orzazewski, and the Dutch actress, Joanne de Bergh (as Conte's ex-wife), do particularly well in minor roles. Radio Actress Betty Garde is hair-raising in her biggest scene; and Jane Crowley makes her bit as a middle-aged tramp as memorable as a well-aimed mule's kick. E. G. Marshall is excellent as Miss de Bergh's second husband, and the writers are to be congratulated for daring to suggest in a movie that a successful marriage need not be an eternity of ootchmagootch between a pair of raving beauties.