Investigative Journalist saves Don Barzini
Back in the late 40s a trend started to appear for docudramas where they would take a real crime and turn them into a movie which explored the crime and case in a semi documentary manner, interweaved with dramatisation of the events. One such movie is "Call Northside 777" which sees James Stewart taking on the role of an investigative journalist who ends up trying to prove that Frank Wiecek, a man accused of a cop killing, is really innocent. Where facts blend with fiction is unclear but these movies tended to stick very close to the truth. Sadly whilst an interesting movie, "Call Northside 777" lacks something that grabs and excites you.
In 1932 Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte - The Godfather) is sentenced to 99 years for the murder of a cop in a speakeasy. 11 years later an advertisement in a paper for evidence surrounding the shooting sparks the interest of a newspaper editor who sends investigative journalist P.J. McNeal (James Stewart - It's a Wonderful Life) to look into things. Initially sceptical of Frank's innocence McNeal slowly starts to believe that the wrong man was set up and sentenced but can he prove it.
The idea of a journalist trying to prove a man sentenced for murder is innocent is not exactly a new idea, not even back in 1948 when "Call Northside 777" was made and more recently Clint Eastwood did something similar with "True Crime". But it's a good idea especially when tied in to a true story making it almost exploratory as it brings facts to life. And the case of Frank Wiecek who back in 1932 was sentenced to 99 years in prison on what is quite flimsy evidence is a good starting block. The way the movie manages to conjure up a storyline so that it feels believable that this journalist would start snooping 11 years later is quite decent it grabs your attention just enough to intrigue you.
All of which is good except that almost everything about "Call Northside 777" runs to a formula from the initially disbelieving journalist through to his trouble getting evidence and the reluctance of the cops to help out. You can second guess much of what will happen and you know that at some point McNeal will find himself battling his superiors and the authorities as he delivers a rousing argument in favour of the wrongly accused Wiecek. And what makes it worse is that for the most it trudges through the formula never really finding the right level of excitement as McNeal digs deeper and deeper. Only occasionally does it really get you gripped, once during a lie detector test and the other when a photo enlargement is being transmitted, the rest of the time it seems to be going though the motions.
And sadly I have to say that the star of "Call Northside 777" James Stewart as journalist P.J. McNeal also spends a lot of time seeming to go through the motions. It has to be said that prior to "Call Northside 777" James Stewart had made a niche for himself playing the nice, easy going, naive characters and was now trying to move away from being typecast. Unfortunately it doesn't quite work as for at least half of the movie Stewart seems quite stand offish failing to get us on his side. It's not until over half way through that we do get to see the charm and moralistic power of Stewart as he starts to fight for Wiecek. When Stewart does start to fire in a way we know he can the movie comes to life but it ends up too little too late.
"Call Northside 777" is also a movie which predominantly revolves around the character of P.J. McNeal, yet there are other characters such as his editor, various cops and women but none make any sort of impact. The only actor who does is Richard Conte, probably better known as Don Barzini in "The Godfather", who as Frank Wiecek manages to find the right emotion of an innocent man who is willing to serve his term to protect his family. It's a nice touch which adds to the believability of the movie.
What this all boils down to is that as a concept and idea for a movie I like "Call Northside 777" with its exploratory docudrama styling. Except that for far too long it seems to be going through the motions of a tried and tested formula. It's not until over half way through does it finally seem to get going and really grab your attention which coincides with James Stewart delivering the powerful performance we know he's capable of.