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MOVIE INFO

Director:
Henry Hathaway
Cast:
James Stewart, Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb, Helen Walker, Betty Garde, Kasia Orzazewski, Joanne De Bergh
Writing Credits:
James P. McGuire (articles), Leonard Hoffman (adaptation), Quentin Reynolds (adaptation), Jerome Cady, Jay Dratler

Synopsis:
In 1932, a cop is killed and Frank Wiecek sentenced to life. Eleven years later, a newspaper ad by Frank's mother leads Chicago reporter P.J. O'Neal to look into the case. When he begins to investigate he meets increased resistance from authorities unwilling to be proved wrong.

MPAA:
Rated NR

DVD DETAILS
Presentation:
Fullscreen 1.33:1
Audio:
English Stereo
English Monaural
Spanish Monaural
Subtitles:
English
Spanish
Closed-captioned

Runtime: 111 min.
Price: $14.98
Release Date: 3/15/2005

Bonus:
• Audio Commentary with Authors/Historians Alain Silver and James Ursini
• Fox Movietone News
• Trailer


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RELATED REVIEWS


Call Northside 777 (1948)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 14, 2005)

James Stewart doesn’t seem like an actor I’d expect to find in a film noir, as I more readily associate gruffer performers like Humphrey Bogart with the genre. Of course, I never would have thought of Fred MacMurray in a similar light, and he starred in the famed noir Double Indemnity. Whatever the case, Stewart acquits himself fairly well as a hard-bitten newspaper reporter in 1948’s Call Northside 777.

At the flick’s start, we’re told that Northside is based on a true story, and we learn of a December 9, 1932 cop-killing. The cops interrogate Tomek Zaleska (George Tyne) and Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) as well as Frank’s wife Helen (Joanne De Bergh). Inconsistencies in the various accounts make the cops suspicious, and when eyewitness speakeasy operator Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde) picks them out of a lineup, the jury finds the pair guilty and they receive 99-year sentences.

In 1944, the case gets reopened due to an unusual source. Frank’s mother Tillie (Kasia Orzazewski) runs a newspaper ad that offers $5000 to anyone with information about the real killers. Newspaper editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb) assigns reporter PJ McNeal (James Stewart) to find out more about the case, as Kelly’s intrigued to find out why it comes up now after so many years. Tillie remains convinced of Frank’s innocence and uses the money to discover the truth.

McNeal continues to believe in Frank’s guilt, but when the story becomes a hit, Kelly assigns the writer to talk to the alleged murderer. He reluctantly does so and tries to spin things from a human interest angle. This eventually leads McNeal to chat with Helen as well. She’s now Frank’s ex-wife; he urged her to move on for the good of their son Frank Jr.

McNeal’s article about the family angers Frank because it tells too much about the boy. He wanted Helen to remarry his son wouldn’t carry the last name of a convict, and McNeal’s work ruins that. Frank also doesn’t care for the ways that McNeal spins things. McNeal agrees to stick solely with the facts to tell the story, and he slowly starts to believe in Frank’s innocence. The rest of the movie follows his investigation and what happens to all involved.

As I mentioned at the start, I wouldn’t normally think of Stewart as someone to play in a film noir. However, the more that Northside continued, the more logical his casting seemed. We don’t usually see Stewart as hard-bitten and cynical, but the character McNeal turns into at the end better matches the actor’s image. Indeed, he turns into such a crusader that the flick directly evokes comparisons with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Too bad that McNeal’s hard-edged side feels forced. Essentially, McNeal’s initial skepticism about Frank’s case exists as a plot device. We see how McNeal gets won over by all the evidence that supports Frank’s innocence, and as an audience, we’re supposed to come with him. Heck, if someone as cynical as McNeal buys Frank’s side of things, how can we not feel the same way?

Unfortunately, the movie paints a totally one-sided picture that leaves no opportunity for us to see things in any other manner. From start to finish, Frank is a sterling character. He’s relentlessly nice and wonderful, and all those attached to him - his mother, his wife - are similarly one-dimensional. On the other side, we meet scuzzy Wanda Skutnik, a thoroughly unlikable character.

There’s absolutely no subtlety here. The movie boasts a moderately intriguing tale, but the manner in which director Henry Hathaway presents the tale makes it dull and utterly predictable. He brings no flair or inventiveness to things, and ultimately we don’t really care what happens.

It’s not a whodunit - it’s a who didn’t do it. The movie never wonders about who actually committed the crime, which leaves something of a void. No, it didn’t have to get into that area, but it seems odd that we get no information whatsoever about the actual culprits. In addition, it leaves poor Tomek in the lurch. If this guy’s innocent as well, why doesn’t anybody worry about him?

In addition, the movie’s fetishistic view of technology makes many of its elements tough to swallow. Perhaps as a reflection of the era, Northside sees technology as the cure to all ills. When Frank takes a lie detector test, we’re meant to accept this as perfect proof of his innocence; the film never even remotely alludes to the flaws in that process. And don’t get me started on the absurd use of photographic blowups at the end. The flick goes way beyond the bounds of technological reality to tell its story, and this just becomes laughable.

Honestly, there’s just not enough punch to Call Northside 777 to make it work. The flick moves slowly and lacks depth. With its mostly one-dimensional characters and predictable storyline, it does little to evoke our interest.


The DVD Grades: Picture C-/ Audio C/ Bonus C+

Call Northside 777 appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Fox usually does a good job with the transfers of their classics, and that made the flawed picture of Northside a disappointment.

The main problem came from source defects. Various issues popped up throughout the movie. I saw specks, pinholes, grit, marks, scratches, streaks and tears on a frequent basis. These seemed heavier than usual, even given the film’s age.

Otherwise, Northside manifested a fairly good image. Despite some moderate edge enhancement at times, the picture showed nice definition and delineation. Only a few soft shots appeared. No problems with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, though the edge enhancement created some distracting haloes. Blacks were a little flat, but they usually looked relatively dense, and low-light shots depicted acceptable smoothness. I didn’t think this was a poor transfer, but it seemed below average.

As for the stereo soundtrack of Call Northside 777, it seemed decent and no better. Just like most of the Fox stereo remixes, this one essentially remained monaural. It demonstrated erratic focus, though. While the image stayed stuck in one place, it occasionally shifted a little to the left side. I noticed no signs of stereo music or other elements; despite the awkward placement at times, this stayed monaural as far as I could tell.

Audio quality was passable for a movie of this one’s age. Many Fox remixes show excessive echo, and that was the case here. Actually, the reverb wasn’t nearly as bad as with some of the other remixes, but it added a mildly unnatural feel to things. Speech remained intelligible, though the lines could be fairly edgy and brittle. Effects were thin and without much range. They lacked distortion but they caused no real problems despite the mildly metallic feel from the reverb.

Music didn’t show up often, and it was about the same as the rest: lackluster but acceptable. A little background noise was evident, but the track usually remained fairly quiet. Chalk this up as a listenable mix and no better.

When we look at the extras, we get an audio commentary from authors/historians Alain Silver and James Ursini. Both men sit together for this running, screen-specific chat. They cover the “docu-noir” genre, the facts behind this fictionalized version, the movie’s look, its cast and their work, character notes and themes, and the director’s intentions.

As with their commentary for Panic in the Streets, Ursini and Silver prove moderately informative but they never threaten to provide a terrific track. I like the bits that talk about the real situation that inspired the movie, and I think they give us a decent feel for genre particulars and the depictions seen in Northside. Unfortunately, the piece drags at times, and it simply lacks the pop of better commentaries from historians like Rudy Behlmer or Eric Lax. This offering merits a listen but I don’t feel it adds a ton to the experience.

Next comes a Movietone News reel. “Motion Picture Stars Attend Premiere of Call Northside 777 simply shows the main actors and others as they arrive at the theater. We also see James Stewart put his feet in concrete in front of the venue.

In addition, we get some trailers. The disc presents an ad for Northside itself as well as four others under the “Fox Noir” banner. That area includes promos for Laura, Panic in the Streets, House of Bamboo, and The Street with No Name.

With a good cast and a potentially intriguing story, I hoped to like Call Northside 777. Unfortunately, the movie lacked any form of imagination or inspiration to make it something more than a tedious and often silly detective story. The DVD presents fairly average picture and audio. We get few extras beyond a decent but unexceptional audio commentary. While Northside wasn’t a bad flick, it never became a good one, and I see little reason to recommend this lackluster DVD.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.9166 Stars Number of Votes: 12
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