Chicago, 1932: two armed men invade a diner and shoot a police officer dead. On the witness testimony of waitress Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde) petty criminals Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) and Tomek Zaleska (George Tyne) are arrested and swiftly convicted of the crime. Eleven years later Tilly Wiecek (Kasia Orzazewski), Frank’s devoted takes an ad out in a newspaper appealing for a new witness to come forward. Intrigued by the story, dogged newspaper reporter P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) pays a visit to the diligent, hard-working old woman using her meagre savings to find some way to exonerate her beloved son. Skeptical at first, McNeal delves deeper into the case and comes to suspect a severe miscarriage of justice.
Inspired by real life reporter James McGuire (who served as a consultant on the film) and his efforts to exonerate the unjustly convicted Joseph Majczek, Call Northside 777 is filmed in a fascinating semi-verité style. It is not quite neo-realism but adds a grounded layer of verisimilitude that must have seemed bracing for filmgoers more used to the expressionistic style of most Forties thrillers. Henry Hathaway, not often thought of as one of cinema's great visual stylists, also interweaves newsreel footage with fly-on-the-wall dramatic scenes in a fairly seamless way. That same ring of authenticity holds true for the low-key performances of the principal cast although one could argue James Stewart, as magnetic and compelling a presence as he is, has an inextinguishable movie star charisma that plays against the film’s pursuit of naturalism.
Nevertheless Stewart is outstanding as McNeal. He starts the movie cynical and guarded, mistrustful of Tilly Wiecek's too-wholesome-to-be-true protestations of innocence for her cop-killer boy. Gradually, as the truth unravels, he becomes a zealous crusader for justice. Naturally, classic film fans would expect nothing less of James Stewart. Indeed opening narration signposts that Call Northside 777 is as much a celebration of dogged newspapermen as a strident indictment of injustice. Unlike movie journalists in later decades McNeal is straight-talking and forthright from the get-go. He is not an opportunist looking to exploit an angle. He believes firmly in the American legal system, but when the system gets it wrong sees it as his duty to set things right. If Stewart's McNeal represents an ideal upright conservative mainstream, Lee J. Cobb's prodding, inquisitive editor stands in for its liberal conscience. He ably cajoles McNeal to challenge his prejudices and delve deeper.
Similarly scenes detailing McNeal's cosy domestic life with likably spunky, intuitive wife Laura (Helen Walker), usually the tedious part of thrillers like these, actually bring warmth and life-affirming humanity to a potentially dry procedural. Conversely scenes between Frank Wiecek and his ex-wife Helen (Joanne De Bergh) are a little too laboured in their plea for sympathy. However actress Kasia Orzazewski brings genuine pathos to a role that had the potential to be overwhelmingly sentimental. She gives a moving performance as the decent, hard-working old woman whose spirit is almost broken by the system. Also making a fascinating appearance in the film is Leonarde Keeler, real life inventor of the polygraph. He pops in to explain the intricacies of his machine and administer the test to Frank.
Though it adds a coda, no doubt stipulated by the government at the time, intended to reassure viewers about the superiority of the American legal system, the film to its credit does not sugar-coat any deficiencies lurking therein. McNeal runs into the expected disinterested pen-pushers and bullish policemen unenthused by his efforts to exonerate a cop-killer. On top of that he also butts heads with influential powerbrokers that do not want to see the authorities besmirched even when they are wrong. Imbued with moral fortitude (and movie star charisma) James Stewart stares them all down, bowing out with a barnstorming soliloquy worthy of his famous filibuster from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). While it might be technology that proves Frank’s salvation, though the lack of closure allotted Tomek Zaleska remains a narrative flaw, the message viewers take away from Call Northside 777 is that the system can fail an innocent without decent, rational, civic minded people like McNeal there to call out its mistakes.