Anybody interested in Chicago history has gotta love this movie. Call Northside 777 was the first major Hollywood production filmed on the streets of Chicago.
The style is not to everyone’s taste. Based on a true story, the 1948 movie is a docudrama, complete with a narrator. There’s no background music, no humor. Parts of it move slowly. Still, I enjoy watching it every time.
The film opens in 1933. Two men try to rob a speakeasy and wind up killing a policeman named Bundy. A little later, a couple of Polish laborers are arrested. One is Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte). The two men are convicted of murder and get 99 years.
Fast-forward to 1944. Newspaper editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb) comes across a personal ad. Somebody is offering a $5,000 reward for the killer of Officer Bundy. That’s serious money in 1944–the equivalent of $60,000 today. Time to call in ace reporter P.J. McNeal!
McNeal is played by James Stewart, in one of the first movies he made after It’s a Wonderful Life. That movie had bombed at the box office. Now Stewart was trying grittier roles.
The editor tells McNeal to phone the number in the ad–Northside 777–and find out what’s going on. It turns out the ad was placed by Wiecek’s aged mother. She’d been working nights as a scrubwoman, trying to get enough money to clear her son.
(BTW, even in the 1940s, Chicago did not have phone numbers as simple as Northside 777. The producers were just looking for a catchy title Too bad they didn’t use something authentic, like Hudson 3-2700.)
McNeal still thinks Frank Wiecek is guilty. But he agrees to investigate the case. This is where the location shooting comes in.
The dogged reporter wanders all over Chicago’s old Polish neighborhoods. We half-expect him to bump into Nelson Algren in a bar. The most interesting site is the street where Wiecek’s mother lives. Her home is just east of Holy Trinity Church, right where the Kennedy is today.
The more McNeal digs, the more he’s convinced Wiecek is innocent. The police still think Wiecek is a cop-killer and resent any attempts to help him. In the end, justice is served. Wiecek is set free.
We should note that technology plays an important part in Northside‘s plot. McNeal uses a lie detector and a wire photo to help make his case. These devices were considered state-of-the-art in 1948.
As in any older movie, it’s fun to identify some of the minor actors. E.G. Marshall shows up, as does wrestler-turned-actor Henry Kulky, a familiar face in scores of 1950s TV shows. Betty Garde chews the scenery as the witness who fingers Wiecek. And Richard Conte–who plays Wiecek–is best known as Barzini in The Godfather.
Many critics have rated Call Northside 777 a genuine classic, worthy of four stars. As for me, I’m still left with one nagging question–
Whatever happened to the second guy who was convicted with Wiecek?