If you wanted to watch a movie that was similar in premise to best-picture winning film Spotlight, but with a more engaging story, subtler writing, and better acting, then I would recommend to you Call Northside 777. The film stars James Stewart, the father everyone wishes they had, as a reporter who investigates a claim by an immigrant woman that her son was wrongfully imprisoned for murdering a cop 11 years earlier, during Prohibition. Although it may be similar in premise – the press engaging against corruption – the style used in the execution of both films couldn’t be more different. Ironically, the more recent Spotlight, written and directed by Tom McCarthy, goes the more traditional dramatic route, while Call Northside 777 is a blend of styles. Ahead of its time, it infuses documentary reenactment with timely film noir-style to lend an emotional edge to a relatively straightforward and simple recounting of true events, letting you invest in the story of its key players along with the history of the city it’s set in.
The setting of the film is none other than Chicago – it’s the first film shot on location in Chicago in fact – and Call Northside 777 helps give a brief history of the city in the 20th century, back to a time worse than the Cubs’ World Series drought: Prohibition. According to the film, the violence in the city got so bad due to the activity of organized crime that there were enough murders for there to be one for every day of the year, and in 1932 there were eight policemen killed. No one takes the death of a policeman lightly, especially their fellow officers. There are numerous examples of modern film and T.V. cop dramas that display a sort of blood brother-like bond between fellow officers, and when one falls in the line of duty, the line becomes blurred between the strong cry for justice and the angry desire for revenge. In Call Northside 777, when Frank Wiecek is falsely accused for murdering a cop, we are somewhat led to believe that his lack of a credible alibi might indicate that he could be the killer. But the innocent man wouldn’t have a convoluted or detailed story explaining his whereabouts if he was truly innocent, would he? It would just be a vague retelling of one of his many days that have blurred together as time went on. However, the police go with the quick response from their key witness, a woman who ran an illegal speakeasy, and they give Wiecek 99 years in the slammer. As James Stewart discovers more and more over the course of the film, he learns of how influential the police are and how willing they are to resort to corruption to block Stewart from finding out the truth: that they might have made a mistake in arresting Wiecek. These themes of corruption and dirty cops were not necessarily new to film noir or other post-war films of the time, but it unfortunately is something that we can identify with and recognize today, which helps make the film much more engaging and less like a relic of the past.
It is true that Spotlight tackles the true story of corruption within a powerful institution as well. Obviously I’m not going to rank one wrongdoing over another, but how these real life stories are adapted to the silver screen is worth taking into consideration. Spotlight decides to tell the story of the Boston Globe reporters in a very Oscar-bait style of drama. It’s very in your face about what it’s trying to say, and while inflating its self-importance the movie loses sight of not only its entertainment value but its historic believability. Call Northside 777, interestingly enough, attempts an honest portrayal of the events by directing it in a style akin to a historical reenactment. We are guided through the background behind the story that P.J. McNeal (Stewart) investigates by a stern narrator, making the film feel like it’s playing out like an episode of America’s Most Wanted. The narration subsides once the plot gets going and we’re introduced to McNeal.
McNeal represents what works and what doesn’t work about this approach for the film. Probably what works the least in this movie is what feels the most dated. Most of the characters feel very underwritten and really only defined by their job or role. McNeal is the experienced professional reporter; Helen is the wife, etc. What fills these shells are tropes and stereotypes of the time, like the stern, cynical P.I. and the witty but dutiful “broad.” However, not all of the characters are portrayed like this. Frank Wiecek, his mother, and his wife are the most interesting characters in the movie. Besides their performances being good enough to hold their own against Stewart’s, they are also the most emotional and complex characters. They are the ones being directly affected by this abuse of power and they don’t understand how entrenched this authority is and why the ruination of their family allows them to maintain control. They are the ones with the most going on with them, so we immediately gravitate towards them, sympathize with their plight, and then root for them to succeed and for McNeal to assist them in this endeavor. We want him to do the right thing and to know that the honest everyman can make the biggest and littlest changes out there. I wouldn’t exactly say this film is great, but it makes the balance between entertaining and informative even enough to where you feel engaged and not bored to death by some forgotten and dated film from an actor known for way better movies.