Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 18: Call Northside 777 (1948)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Call Northside 777 (1948) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 140 of the first edition hardback, Roger recalls meeting Chicago newspaperman Jack McPhaul, whose reporting inspired the events of the film. He recounts McPhaul’s anecdote of a photographer at a 1940s demonstration of an atom being split pitching the following preposterous photo spread: “I’ve got a great idea for a series of three photos for the top of page one. You puttin’ in the atom, splittin’it, and standin’ around looking at the pieces.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: Ebert never officially reviewed the film, but he does mention it in his essay “The Best Damn Job in the Whole Damn World,” a collection of thoughts on what it means to be a newspaperman. Again, he mentions meeting McPhaul, an opportunity he clearly considered to be an honor.

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There’s a long history of celebrated newspapermen in celebrated films, from the William Randolph Hearst archetype of Citizen Kane to the Watergate investigation team of All the President’s Men to the recent Oscar-winning profile of Bostonian sex abuse scandal breakers in Spotlight. Roger Ebert was lucky to be born in a time, perhaps the end of a time, when print journalism was still a viable career and he knew it, proudly calling his occupation at The Chicago Sun-Times “the best damn job in the whole damn world.” Long before The Chicago Sun & The Chicago Times merged into a single paper, it had its own movie-worthy story of a newspaperman doing good. Besides boasting a general pride for his career path, Ebert was proud to have met/worked with Jack McPhaul, who he credited with penning the articles that inspired the “based on true events” drama Call Northside 777. The opening credits of Call Northside 777, however, state that the film is “based on an article by James P McGuire.” The truth is that both Chicagoan newspapermen were responsible for penning the articles that freed the wrongly convicted “Stop Me Before I Kill Again Killer” Joseph Majczek after 11 years of imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit. Instead of playing the story like a group effort of an investigative team, however, Call Northside 777 sells its narrative as the efforts of one dedicated reporter’s “refusal to accept defeat,” presumably because it made for a better story.

Said amalgamation of McPhaul & McGuire is brought to life by none other than Old Hollywood mainstay Jimmy Stewart. Structurally speaking, Call Northside 777 isn’t too much to speak of in terms of innovation. It borrows a page from Citizen Kane in mixing newspaper reel stock footage & narration in with its narrative to establish a documentarian tone and attempts to construct the shadowy crime world aesthetic of a noir (except with a missing sense of urgency or moral ambiguity to its danger), but doesn’t do anything particularly inventive or memorable with either element. It’s the specificity of James Stewart’s lead performance as a skeptical-but-noble reporter, from his unmistakable vocal patters to his little-guy-vs-the-big-system demeanor, that makes the film a joy to watch. Although a 2010s audience wouldn’t likely be as familiar with the real-life events the film was based on as a 1940s audience would be, it’s still all too easy to guess how the story will turn out in the end (there wouldn’t be much of a plot if Macjzek were guilty). As so, the entertainment appeal of this non-mystery depends largely on Stewart’s performance, a burden he handles well. At first Stewart’s eternally exhausted newspaperman believes Majczek (or his fictionalized surrogate Wiecek) is guilty and only takes on the story because of a pushy newspaper editor & the prisoner’s sympathetic mother, who scrubs floors to earn money to investigate his long dead case. At first he’s reluctant to follow up on the supposed innocence of a man who I believes to be a cop killer, asking “Don’t I get time off for good behavior?” but he eventually unravels a story about drunk lawyers, faulty investigations, spineless judges, and Prohibition-era police department corruption that reveals Majczek/Wiecek to be a victim of the system. Stewart plays the part with a befuddled nobility only he could sell with such immense credibility and his efforts to free his articles’ star subject are likened to his wife’s hobby of slowly piecing together complicated jigsaw puzzles. It’s a methodical, frustrating process, but it’s rewarding when the picture finally comes together for the newspaperman & the wrongly convicted “cop killer.”

Besides Jimmy Stewart’s show-stealing performance Call Northisde 777 is mostly interesting for its historical curiosities. The first Hollywood production shot on location in Chicago, the film tried, when possible, to include actual locations from the real-life Mazcjek story to help establish its documentary tone. The inventor of the polygraph test, Leonard Keeler, plays himself & puts on a very extensive, detailed demonstration of his invention/methods. There’s also great attention paid to old fashion newspaper press machinery & the magic process of sending a photograph over a wire. For the most part, though, this 1940s non-noir is of interest for the way it captures an ancient Chicago, struggling to portray its immense, dangerous spirit, with its great fires, great violence, great corruption, and great newspapermen. Although Stewart’s noble sweetheart protagonist is an unmistakably decent guy, he still navigates an ancient journalism world built on lies, hard liquor, hard work, and cigar smoke. The true crime mystery thriller Call Northside 777 tries to sell isn’t particularly interesting or unique, but Stewart’s portrayal of noble newspaperman in an ignoble world is an easy emotional rallying point and it’s no wonder that meeting the man who helped inspire the character was a proud moment for Ebert, as McPhaul represented “the best damn job in the whole damn world” in what I’m sure the legendary critic considered the best damn city in the whole damn world.

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Roger’s Rating (N/A)

Brandon’s Rating: (3.5/5, 70%)

threehalfstar

Next Lesson: Tootsie (1982)

-Brandon Ledet

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