“Outside is a good world.”
No actor represents American decency better than James Stewart. In both his military and film careers, Stewart was the everyman, the humble hero who managed to get the job done through sheer willpower. He was someone you naturally rooted for, and his most iconic roles emphasize that special connection.
That said, sympathy only goes so far. Stewart would not have been one of the greatest actors of all time if it weren’t for his stunning range and surprising adaptability. In a career that spanned seven decades, Stewart excelled in every genre imaginable. He was a convincing cowboy, a charming love interest, and in the case of Call Northside 777 (1948), a Crusade reporter with a hot lead.
Call Northside 777 is unique in that it is one of the few documentary-style film noirs to boast a top-notch cast. The common practice, at least as far as 20th Century Fox was concerned, was to make tough crime films based on true events, with reliable B players like Dennis O’Keefe and Mark Stevens. They were cheap, profitable, and grounded in their refreshing lack of glamour. The less recognizable the face, the more believable the false “documentary” angle.
Stewart’s casting may have gone against practice, but it also reached a pivotal point in his career. While he had scored an Oscar nomination for It’s a beautiful life Two years earlier, the actor was at a professional crossroads and feared his post-war output had paled in comparison to his earlier work. that both It’s a beautiful life and rope (his first collaboration with Hitchcock) flopped at the box office, nothing helped. He was trying to find bits that suited his older, less naïve presence, and Chicago newspaperman PJ MacNeal was perfect.
MacNeal is a Windy City veteran assigned to the case of convicted murderer Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte). The latter’s mother placed a $5,000 ad in the newspaper urging people to come forward to clear her son’s name, and the novelty of the ad is leading MacNeal down a rabbit hole of reconsidered evidence and new leads. He discovers that Wiecek’s innocence is more than just a pipe dream and sets out to argue in his favour.
There’s nothing particularly fancy about that Call Northside 777. It is managed economically by Henry Hathaway, who pioneered the documentary noir style The house on 92nd Street, and it sheds light on a real-life case that just thirsted to be dramatized. But what really sets the film apart is the persuasiveness of the actors.
Lee J. Cobb and Helen Walker are terrific as MacNeal’s editor and wife, respectively. The former is fun as a pipe-smoking cynic who clashes with the reporter’s budding rectitude. He wants Weicek acquitted, sure, but he wants to sell some more papers. Minor, potentially forgotten roles are rescued by dazzling bitch actors like Charles Lane, EG Marshall and John McIntire.
Richard Conte is perfectly cast as Weicek, a man who quietly rots for someone else’s crime. The actor draws on the aching humility that a decade in prison would bring, but his words still have an underlying bite. You get the feeling that he could to be guilty when he is not. Conte’s career skyrocketed after the film’s release, and he perfected his coiled-up machismo in classics like highway of thieves (1949) and The big station wagon (1955).
Then there’s Stewart, who delivers one of his most underrated performances as MacNeal. The everyman quality mentioned above is there, but he carefully emphasizes it with an obsessive streak that sometimes borders on manic. The Wiecek case becomes increasingly important as the film progresses, and Stewart manages to communicate so much through minimal body language. MacNeal is a character of action rather than reflection, and most of his scenes involve him flipping through photos or interviewing old witnesses.
A smaller star would have gone the more conspicuous route and tried to dominate his co-stars, but he’s picky about his “big” acting moments and prefers to let others do the talking. It works like a charm. Few actors are as compelling as Stewart when it comes to watching them think. It also gives him a chance to re-contextualize his screen persona as he turned 40. MacNeal is a bit more skeptical than his previous characters, and it’s precisely because of that weathered quality that his path to becoming a crusader feels so deserved. He’s the same American hero we know and love; he just wants to be sure of one thing before he endorses it.
Stewart regained his confidence (and box office success) soon after the film’s release and had what was arguably the best run of his career in the 1950s. Still, it’s hard to imagine the dense, ambiguous performances he gives Broken Arrow and dizziness were it not for his fundamental work here.
I won’t bore you with an overview of the various beats MacNeal must navigate through, because experiencing them firsthand is one of the film’s particular joys. There are no grand twists or profound revelations about humanity to be found here; just good storytelling and great execution. Sometimes that’s all we need. dial in North side 777 if that sounds like noir to you.
TRIVIA: Thelma Ritter was cast as the police secretary, but most of her scenes were cut from the final release. As a result, her lonely interaction with Stewart went uncredited.
All articles from Danilo’s Film Noir Review can be found here.,
Danilo Castro is a Film Noir fan and contributing writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more articles and reviews by Danilo at the Film Noir Archive or follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.