Of the small number of Henry Hathaway films that I’ve seen, I haven’t cared much for any of his westerns, but I’m quite fond of his work in noir and thrillers. Niagara’s Technicolor vistas and Marilyn Monroe’s fantastic performance make that an enjoyable ride, while 14 Hours makes solid use of its ripped from the headlines story and ensemble of character actors. Call Northside 777 features many of those same strengths, like Niagara it’s got a great movie star turn in the central role, and like 14 Hours is takes a true story and embellishes it to great dramatic effect, sprinkling in some character actors giving solid work in meaty parts.
A reporter (James Stewart) is sent to investigate a classified ad seeking information about a decade old murder. The ad was placed by a wrongly convicted killer’s hopeful mother. Stewart’s initially sceptic about the prospects of the story, and the man’s innocence, but is encourage by his boss to keep digging deeper. The fact that the film will eventually prove this suspicion correct is no surprise, it practically telegraphs this detail from the very beginning.
What makes Call Northside 777 so special is how it deep dives into the mundane details of reporting. Much of the twists and turns rely upon Stewart’s discovery of evidence that is missing, or stories that don’t align correctly, the absence of information while providing lots of extraneous pieces. Much of the film relies less on sensational reveals than on gaining new bits of knowledge to create a new perspective on the events that have unfolded.
And Stewart plays it all beautifully. After returning to films from WWII service, Stewart had a rough few years trying to regain his footing. That doesn’t mean his performances were slouches, just that his box office strength wasn’t as impressive as it had been. I’ve always found his post-WWII work to be filled with superior choices of roles, collaborators, and stronger work. Call Northside 777 may not be one of his towering career heights, but it’s one of those surprising smaller movies that gets stuck in the valley between It’s a Wonderful Life and Harvey. And the two major supporting players, Lee J. Cobb and Richard Conte, may even surpass his work. Cobb essays the role of Stewart’s editor at the paper, a warm presence who keeps pushing for the story to go further in. And Conte is the framed man, all desperate and pleading for someone to help him prove that he was railroaded into his current state.