James Stewart - P.J. McNeal
Richard Conte - Frank Wiecek
Lee J. Cobb - Brian Kelly
Helen Walker - Laura McNeal
Betty Garde - Wanda Skutnik
Thelma Ritter - Secretary
Henry Hathaway - Director
Otto Lang - Producer
Leonard Hoffman - Screenwriter
James P. McGuire - Original Articles
Joseph MacDonald - Cinematographer
Alfred Newman - Film Score
Psychologically, the professionally conducted investigation is the least challenging of the noir narrative patters. The essential detachment and objectivity of the form made it the obvious story line for noir in its so-called semi-documentary phase. In such films as Boomerang (1947), Call Northside 777 (1948), The House on 92nd Street (1945), and Street with No Name (1948), the framework of professional investigation is taken into the real world. The milieu is not the enclosed and fictional one of the byzantine Hammett-Chandler narratives, but true-life settings taken from the files of the FBI and newspaper headlines.
Investigators in these case-history reconstructions remain personally disinterested. They are professionals doing a job. Yet they are fired by goals highter than Marlowe's--higher, that is, than interest and pleasure in cracking a case. These hunters are patriots, crusading journalists, lawyers determined to defeat a corrupt political machine, FBI men bent on toppling a crime syndicate. In these hard-hitting problem dramas, noir emerges from the fictional labyrinth to become a form of propaganda: the crime thriller as social pamphlet, as journalistic expose, as contemporary crusade. The narrative structure of these semi-documantary films is much the same as that of the private eye whodunits: an outside investiagor confronts a maze. The plotting is as complicated and gnarled, as the crack questioner grills a series of witnesses.
In Call Northside 777, James Stewart is a journalist whose boss (Lee J. Cobb) sees a suspicious ad ("Call Northside 777") which offers money for information about an eleven-year-old case. Skeptical, the reporter thinks the ad is a fake. He traces the 777 number to a cleaning woman, who has worked for eleven years to accululate the $5000 reward money she now offers because she believes that her son Frank (Richard Conte), who was convicted of murdering a policeman and is serving a life-term in prison, is innocent. The reporter is unpersuaded, but gradually he sees that Frank may well be the victim of circumstantial evidence, and Stewart becomes determined to see that justice triumphs. After his laborious reconstruction of the past he is convinced of the condemned man's innocence.
Moving crime into the real world and away from the tormented victims who dominated its early phase, the Neo-Realist influence modified the direction of noir. The central characters of the semi-documentary thrillers are staunch law enforcement officers, defenders and protectors of the status quo, who are less interesting than the damned figures in classic noir pieces like Double Indemnity (1944) and The Woman in the Window (1944). Films on the order of Call Northside 777 reduce the twisted characters, who are starred in Expressionist noir thrillers, to colorful but decidedly supporting roles.
Richard Conte is convincing as a victim of circumstance who is given a life sentence for a crime he did not commit. Playing this beleaguered character with a fetching gentleness, he offers a striking contrast to his definitive noir criminals, the desperate man on the run in Cry of the City (1948) and the racketeer, crazed by jealousy and ambition, in The Big Combo (1955). Conte has a rugged charm, no matter what kind of part he plays; he is believable as a romantic hero in a way that other noir antagonists like Richard Widmark or Jack Palance could ever be.
Call Northside 777 contains the intriguing "wrong man" theme, but undercuts its potential by presenting the action from the reporter's rather than the condemned man's perspective. Visually and thematically, the film's emphasis is on the processes of the investigation and discovery rather than on the wrong man's paranoia and entrapment. Skillfully constructed and well acted, the film downplays character in favor of documentation, which leads to a dramatic dead end that can only be overcome by technology. The crime is solved not in the noir nightworld that the private eye inhabits, but by science.
--FOSTER HIRSCH, from Film Noir
The Dark Side of the Screen.
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