Sunday, February 3, 2008

Call Northside 777

"Call Northside 777"(Henry Hathaway, 1948) There was a brief period in American films where Hollywood embraced the neo-realist school coming out of Italy--where stories were filmed out in the streets, not in the rarified atmosphere of a film-studio (Italy's huge studio, Cinecitta, was being used to house refugees), and it dove-tailed with the gritty world of film noir and crime-thrillers. Elia Kazan made one, even Hitchcock did. But the most well-remembered of them was "Call Northside 777" with James Stewart as blasé "Chicago Times" reporter Jim McLane, who, upon taking an assignment he doesn't want, turns it into a cause celebre and his own obsession to see Justice done.

This was one of the first movies Stewart did after his Air Force service, as he was beginning to challenge and even destroy his callow image at the beginning of his career. Now, with an added maturity he could actually pull off the cynical journalist role he wasn't too convincing as in "The Philadelphia Story" (which won him a "sympathy" Oscar after losing the previous year for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" the year before) He returned from the war determined to play characters with a darker edge.

Henry Hathaway directed with a subtle eye, finding interesting deep-focus shots in lackluster surroundings. McLane's first encounter with a scrub-woman washing the stairs of a cathedraled office building carries the visual weight of years of work needed to raise the reward-money to help spring her imprisoned son (Richard Conte). The jailhouse of the visitation scenes IS the jailhouse, and the arrest of Conte's character looks and feels like actual newsreel footage. Finally, you get to go back in time and watch vital clues produced by the old technology of wire-photo transfer. It's another instance where the straight-laced neo-noir style goes a long way in selling the truth of a story, however implausible it might seem.

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