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Sunday, January 01, 2017

More Street Reality From Fox


Call Northside 777 (1947) For Docu-Noir

How this was sold is focus here. 20th Fox had a true story basis and shouted that to skies. What happened in real life was a natural for movies, a reporter exonerating a wrong man convicted on bogus evidence years before. Had Chicago police been complicit in the frame? Fox chief Darryl Zanuck forbade exploration of that; said it was "Un-American." Director Henry Hathaway, among few who'd stand up to DFZ, dropped on-screen hints to suggest corruption in long-past law enforcement, even as skirts were clean among current administration. Civic bodies were touchy over this sort of thing; a Windy City boycott based on libel of officers was no risk to be taken by any producer, let alone one dependent on heavy bookings there.


As with prior noir, Fox seasoned with real location and adherence close as showmanly possible to facts of the case. Dogged investigation had gotten an innocent man free, but the real killer remained loose and would remain so. 20th planted press to effect that Call Northside 777 may nab the guilty party by dint of a viewer seeing the movie and coming forth with fresh evidence. It was a neat hook, Chicagoans able to play detective in addition to fun of a corking thriller. "Police and newspaper men ... think they have a pretty shrewd idea as to who the murderer is," said Fox-prepared columns, but did they really? To the picture's credit, they didn't tie up narrative with too neat a ribbon. The ending is hopeful, but not necessarily happy. What Call Northside 777 celebrated was reporter tenacity and devices new to investigation technique, these emphasized in the film, and even more so, in publicity for the film.


A shiniest new toy was the lie detector. You couldn't use one in court, but Dr. Leonardo Keeler, who appears on-camera operating his device, said it was "more than 99 percent accurate." Call Northside 777 was probably the best endorsement polygraphs ever had. You'd swear the thing was infallible from watching here. Keeler insisted on playing himself because "no actor could handle the complex machine." Kind of reminded me of sound experts that took over the pic industry during transition to talk. No one questioned their expertise either. Another miracle device was 40's equivalent of a FAX machine, used in concert with X100 blow-up of an already indistinct photo to free the innocent man. That last doesn't bear up to much scrutiny, but works as engine for third act suspense, an aspect of Call Northside 777 that had worried director Hathaway, as evidenced in contretemps he had with Zanuck over a proper ending.


Watchwords then, were "real" and "true." Call Northside 777 would celebrate integrity of modern journalists, this a  welcome departure from reporters of a Lee Tracy bent, an image scribes were ready to have done with. It paid to portray newspapers in positive light; they were, after all, the lifeline for movies before television became a promotional force. 20th had finally made urban thrillers pay, the way into wallets being "Filmed-From-Life" verisimilitude. Each investment to that account had gone into black: The House On 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeleine, Kiss Of Death, and Boomerang. Call Northside 777 would rank second only to 92nd Street in terms of profit, even as 777 grossed highest of the lot (Northside had a higher negative cost). The semi-doc-group tended to do better than straight noir, which for Fox, became a losing proposition. Zanuck, in fact, issued a memo to effect that audiences were tired of darkish content and that crime themes, at least on the 20th lot, needed a rest.

5 Comments:

Blogger tbonemankini said...

Saw this quite by accident many years ago as an impressionable teenager and whether you think highly of it or not (some have called it the most boring movie EVER to my face!) it has managed to stick in my mind all this time...when it turns up now and again, I usually manage to catch some of it and still enjoy it,now I realise, as docu-noir,a category that will cover quite a few of my B/W faves that don't really fit in the noir Cinderella skipper...Cheers John!

3:40 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Reworked a few years later as an episode of THE 20TH CENTURY FOX HOUR, called FALSE WITNESS starring Fred MacMurray.

1:44 PM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

I haven't seen this since I was in grade school, but I STILL remember the name Wanda Scutnick.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Watched this last night after having read this post. Did not find it at all boring. Totally the reverse. It had me from the start. In real life did the Richard Conte character get out of prison? Seems as if the other fellow should have as well. Once in a while journalists like that played by Stewart do come along.

6:06 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon considers the 40's style of moviemaking and "Call Northside 777":


John,

I really don't know how you do it! Of course, you already know I'm all-in as far as my high regard for old movies, even as they continue to age---'gracefully', in my biased opinion, but perhaps egregiously in the eyes of younger people! There was, as the most enthusiastic but still realistic of us might admit, always an element of a slightly more sophisticated "Once upon a time...!" quality in most Hollywood films. Like those storybooks those of us who were fortunate to have read to us from a loving parent when we were very young, so did Hollywood stick to a kind of template with a linear plot, clearly drawn characters, dialog always comprehensible (none of that post-modern fuzzy wuzzy Altman or Cimino-style blurred soundtracks), musical scores working very much up front to tell you (frankly) how to feel, and photography nearly always immaculate and stylized. One could go on! It's interesting to see you taking on "Northside 777" here, which might indeed have seemed the epitome of naturalism when it was new, along with its role models you also discuss. I hadn't known these had all performed so well for Fox. That explains their effusion at that time. And I wonder, did the success of the earliest one (which was, w/o double-checking all of them on the IMDB, "The House on 92nd Street", according to the ad?) possibly affect the makers of even the Christmas perennial "Miracle on 34th Street", as far as choice of material and a lot of location photography? The breakout from soundstage and backlot into the big, bad world is an interesting subject all on its own. Your smart writing reveals how these still-innovative techniques and approaches permitted the makers to sneak in some of the usual fact-bending, which is another important consideration of their overall impact given the environments (real ones) were simultaneously telling the audience "it's all REAL"! Not to say that before the tremendous implosion of public trust that commenced in the '60s had even begun to happen on that kind of scale in the immediate postwar period. Cant and prejudice, propaganda and fear tactics still had free reign then, and the status quo really had no threat posed to it for another 20-odd years, it would seem to me. The posed pictures with Stewart and Richard Conte, or with Lee J. Cobb, remind us that even 'reality' pictures must have been promoted as this one apparently was, with those patently posed, theatrically-lit stills. That's "how it was done", then. And I'm sure those didn't prejudice contemporary patrons against the claims of realism when viewed in the lobby or those wonderful shallow poster boxes outside the theaters (almost a lost relic situation, today) with the locking glass window/doors? How I used to scrutinize those posters lining the walls of our local theater in Inglewood as a burgeoning life-long movie fan, even in my pre-teens! Not only the 'Now Playing' ones, but the 'Coming Soon'!

5:32 PM  

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