Before joining in March, 1941, as a private in the United States Army Air Corps, James Stewart had made his name in Hollywood with several wholesome films, his name becoming a byword for the amiable and earnest young man who shows what is really important in life. After two years training stateside and then two years flying twenty bombing missions over National Socialist Germany, Stewart, by then a highly decorated colonel, celebrated the end of the war, joined what eventually became the Air Force Reserve, and returned to Hollywood.
Before long, director Frank Capra asked Stewart to star in what would be Stewart’s first film since the war, and 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life was right in line with heart-warming pre-war fare by Capra and Stewart, their award-winning You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. By then, however, Stewart was almost forty and wanted to try more dramatic roles.
His chance came in 1947, making Call Northside 777. It began a new phase of his career, showing a tougher, darker side; soon would follow suspense films with Alfred Hitchcock and Westerns with John Wayne. Stewart would still make light-hearted motion pictures, such as Harvey and Bell, Book, and Candle, but he would also star in more serious films, such as Anatomy of a Murder and Strategic Air Command. Stark and taut, Call Northside 777, directed by Henry Hathaway, has become a classic in the genre of film noir.
In February, 1948, Call Northside 777 had its theatrical release. Along with Stewart, it starred Lee J. Cobb and Richard Conte. In the days before television, movies were abridged for radio, and in December, 1949, Stewart reprised his role in a half-hour adaptation for a weekly radio program, Screen Directors’ Playhouse. In that version, Stewart was joined by radio greats William Conrad and Paul Frees.
As Hathaway had done in The House on 92nd Street (1945), here he based his film on actual events and used what was called a “documentary style,” with voice-over narration and filming on location. The House on 92nd Street starred Lloyd Nolan and depicted an FBI investigation of a Nazi spy ring operating from an otherwise respectable townhouse in New York City. Call Northside 777 presented a slightly fictional version of the case of Joseph M. Majczek, a young man arrested in December, 1932, in Chicago and convicted for shooting and killing William D. Lundy, an off-duty policeman.
The catalyst for Call Northside 777 came in October, 1944, from a small advertisement placed in a newspaper, the Chicago Daily Times: “$5,000 reward for killers of Officer Lundy on Dec. 9, 1932. Call GRO 1758, 12-7 p. m.” An editor at the paper saw the advertisement and assigned a reporter, James McGuire, to look into it. Deeply skeptical of any convict’s claim to be innocent, let alone a convicted cop killer, McGuire grudgingly investigated, and what he found made him doubt his skepticism.
Identified by witnesses and tripped up by inconsistencies in his own testimony, twenty-one year-old Joe Majczek had been sentenced to ninety-nine years in state prison, and with his consent, his wife divorced him and remarried so that their son would grow up in a stable family. All the while, Joe Majczek’s mother, Tillie, knew she had raised her son better and that he could not have killed a man.
In its issue of 27 August, 1945, Time magazine featured the story. Here was an intriguing case from a notoriously corrupt city, where a son of Polish immigrants had his life ruined by police eager to catch the man who had gunned down one of their own. Now, his widowed mother was offering a reward, saved from money she earned scrubbing floors for eleven years, and a tenacious reporter was seeking to clear the prisoner’s name.
In the film, along with the telephone number, the names changed, so that, for example, Joe Majczek became Frank Wiecek, and James McGuire became P. J. McNeal. Without giving too much away, let it suffice to say that what got Wiecek released from prison was not so much new evidence as old evidence seen in a new way.
In its review of the film, Time magazine said, “the players try to be as true to life as the living city.” Bosley Crowther, in his review for The New York Times, called the film “a slick piece of modern melodrama” that “combines a suspenseful mystery story with a vivid, realistic pictorial style.”
Urban realism is central to making this movie mark a development in Stewart’s career. Jonathan Coe, in his Jimmy Stewart: A Wonderful Life (1994), noted the film’s “dingy realism and low-life characters.” The police offices and the state penitentiary, the smoke-filled bars and dirty alleys of Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods were all a far cry from the glossy Wall Street office of You Can’t Take It with You or the small-town coziness of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life.
One aspect of the film meant to give it greater verisimilitude was casting Leonarde Keeler, inventor of the polygraph, to portray himself and give Wiecek a lie detector test. The only time the machine indicated Wiecek was lying was when Keeler asked him if he was married, and Wiecek said no. “He’s a Catholic,” Keeler later explained to McNeal, “and he still thinks he’s married, and he feels within himself that he’s married.”
In his recent biography of Henry Hathaway, Harold N. Pomainville pointed out a more subtle aspect of the film’s realism. By using authentic locations associated with the Majczek case, Chicago itself became one of the film’s characters. Moreover, according to Pomainville, Hathaway, a pioneer in what today is called docudrama, urged Stewart to move beyond where he felt comfortable as an actor, coaching him to control his characteristic stammer by using the authoritative voice he had developed as a commanding officer.
Like Stewart, Hathaway was a patriotic man, and the unlikely resolution of Majczek’s story proved again for both men how the United States stands distinct from a lot of other nations. Call Northside 777 is about family and faith, law and justice, and it is also about Americans at their best. “It’s a big thing when a sovereign state admits an error,” McNeal told Wiecek, and he added, “Remember this: there aren’t many governments in the world that would do it.”