Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: ‘Call Northside 777’: Moving Past Cynicism to Truth

August 8, 2020 Updated: August 14, 2020

Not Rated| 1h 52min | Drama, Film-Noir | March 1948 (USA)

The highly tumultuous Prohibition era of American history catapulted Chicago to new heights of violence. Under the terms of the 18th Amendment, Prohibition made the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages illegal in the United States. Of course, many people found a way to get to alcohol anyway, even if it meant visiting one of the many speakeasies that dotted the Windy City.

Prolific director Henry Hathaway’s noir drama “Call Northside 777” takes place in 1932, an especially deadly year in Chicago’s history. During that year alone, one person died for every single day of that year. One such person was Officer Bundy, a Chicago cop. Eager to blame someone for the crime, the police round up a couple of Polish men, Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) and his good friend Tomek Zaleska (George Tyne).

The two suspects are hauled in for some intense bouts of questioning. After detectives grill them for extended periods of time, the officers find some inconsistencies in their suspects’ stories that eventually lead to the two receiving 99-year sentences.

Eleven years later, the editor of the Chicago Times, Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb), spies a peculiar advertisement in the back of his newspaper. It reads: “$5,000 REWARD for killers of Officer Bundy on Dec. 9, 1932. Call Northside 777. Ask for Tillie Wiesek 12-7 p.m.”

Kelly brings the ad to the attention of one of his reporters, P.J. McNeal (James Stewart). McNeal is a hardened journalist with an ever-skeptical demeanor. He quickly scoffs at the ad, thinking it is some kind of scam. But from the outset, Kelly seems to think that there is something more to the ad that bears investigation.

Lee J. Cobb and James Stewart
Lee J. Cobb (L) and James Stewart in “Call Northside 777.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

McNeal calls Northside 777 and is directed to a location where Tillie is working. When he arrives there, he finds a woman scrubbing floors on her hands and knees in the darkened halls of a building. He learns that she is Tillie Wiecek (Kasia Orzazewski), Frank Wiecek’s mother.

In a heart-wrenching scene, Tillie describes how she’s been working as a cleaning lady for 11 years to save enough pennies from her meager wages to accumulate the $5,000 reward. She quickly asks if McNeal can help her so that she can get her son out of prison since she wholeheartedly believes he is innocent of the murder. As McNeal doesn’t believe in Frank’s innocence, he turns down her offer.

_man talking to old women
In the film’s most touching scene, P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) talks to Tillie Wiecek (Kasia Orzazewski) to find out why she put out a $5,000 reward to find a murderer. (Twentieth Century Fox)

But McNeal, touched by Tillie’s motherly devotion to her son—and seeing a good story angle—does a write-up on Wiesek’s story titled “Slaves to save $5,000—offers it to clear her son,” with a picture of Tillie down on her hands and knees scrubbing a floor. The sob story quickly becomes popular, and Kelly, still having a hunch that there is something more to the matter, tasks McNeal to follow up.

The follow-up article creates even more public interest, and soon McNeal is off to the state prison to visit Frank. At first, McNeal doesn’t believe in Frank’s side of the story: It doesn’t have much to it, other than a few sparse details. But McNeal’s supportive wife, Laura (Helen Walker), begins to wear down his wall of cynicism by encouraging him to dig deeper. Like Kelly, she thinks that there is more to Frank and Tillie Wiesek’s story.

Laura (Helen Walker) and P.J. McNeal (James Stewart)
Laura (Helen Walker) and P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) chat about the murder case he is investigating. (Twentieth Century Fox)

Delving into the case, McNeal uncovers some curious details that either have been hidden from him by the local police or are otherwise hard to track down. Will he eventually come to believe in Frank’s innocence, or will his unusual investigative techniques get him into waters too deep and dangerous for him to handle?

Film’s Heart in the Right Place

What I like about this film is that it touches on many themes. There’s a cynical examination of what some institutions (both public and private) will do in order to protect their reputations. There are other things covered too—such as the power of a mother’s relentless love and support, and the importance of encouragement from a faithful friend or spouse.

“Call Northside 777” is a noir film with its heart in the right place and some seriously feel-good moments in its dramatic ending sequences. Its excellent acting performances and deft direction make it a gripping thriller that transcends many of the genre’s clichés.

‘Call Northside 777’
Director: Henry Hathaway
Starring: James Stewart, Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb
Not Rated
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Release Date: March 1948 (USA)
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Ian Kane is a filmmaker and author based out of Los Angeles. To learn more, visit DreamFlightEnt.com or contact him at Twitter.com/ImIanKane