Monday, September 25, 2006

Film Review--Call Northside 777 (1948)

Call Northside 777, part of the FOX film noir series released lately on DVD is not really a film noir. More on that later. But it is an interesting crime drama. It is based on the true story of Frank Wiececk, wrongfully convicted of murdering a Chicago police officer in 1932. He spent 11 years in prison before being freed. FOX decided it was such a great story, they would turn into a movie starring Jimmy Stewart as a newspaper reporter publicizing the case, Lee J. Cobb as his editor (and if the blogosphere needs anything, it's more Lee J. Cobb references), and Richard Conte as Frank Wiececk.

The movie is all right but the political assumptions of the movie are far more fascinating. Stewart's newspaper reporter is a skeptic--he doesn't believe that Wiececk could be innocent. The police wouldn't railroad someone into prison! Cobb is more optimistic about Wiececk and takes a particular interest in the case for reasons that remain unexplained. Jimmy Stewart is great in this role because he plays Jimmy Stewart--the conservative upholder of American morality. He has such faith in the system that clearly Frank Wiececk must be guilty. Eventually he begins to see the light and is outraged that the system would work against an innocent man like that. But Stewart still believes in the police, the justice system, and America.

As I was watching the movie, Jimmy Stewart reminded me of Bob Dole. Bob Dole was a big proponent of the American for Disabilities Act because he lost the use of his hand in World War II. Stewart's character promoted the Wiececk case because he became convinced of his innocence. But in neither case did they did take bigger lessons from it. Dole opposed every other sort of social program because it was a waste of taxpayer money. If it didn't affect him, he didn't care. Stewart still believed in the American justice system despite its wrongful conviction of Wiececk. Wiececk may be innocent, but everyone else is still guilty. All of this reminds me of a day I spent in the Montana State Legislature about 5 years ago. Some Republican was arguing in favor of a program to help troubled children because it helped his grandson who was a punk. He flat out said that he thought social programs were a waste of time and money but this one was different because it helped out someone he knew. Some people are completely unable to learn from their experiences.

Call Northside 777 was particularly known for its use of the prison system of Illinois as a set. They even had the inventor of the lie detector test himself run the test on Wiececk. Stewart visits the big new model prison to consult with the man convicted with Wiececk, a man that Stewart clearly doesn't care about and in fact no effort is made during the film to get him out of prison with Wiececk. This prison is supposed to be the new model. The cells are in an open circle with the guard tower in the middle. And while that might have been state of the art in 1948 and might even be today, I just became furious with the American judicial system. What is this supposed to do? Why don't we spend any time rehabilitating people instead of just locking them away? How many of the people in that prison were innocent? How many are today? Why don't we as a people care?

Finally, when the movie ends and Wiececk is freed (sorry for the spoiler but anyone who is going to watch this piece of well-made studio hackery is going to see that coming from the beginning anyway), Wiececk thanks Stewart for freeing him and Stewart is quick to remind him that few countries would have done so. So Wiececk is supposed to be thankful to the nation that locked him away unjustly for 11 years? Is he supposed to be happy that he is not back in Poland? I know it's the early years of the Cold War but come on! Yes, America is the greatest nation in the world because when one of our people is locked up through political corruption unjustly for a big chunk of their life, they have a tiny chance of being freed, despite official police opposition, if a remarkably unusual set of circumstances comes about. Yeah, I don't think so.

As for the film itself, it's OK but again, studio hackery. Why it is included in the FOX film noir collection I don't know. All it has in common with most noirs is that Jimmy Stewart is wearing a fedora and some of the scenes are filmed at night.