How often have we seen the words “Based on a true story” on the big screen and found out later that the events depicted in the movie we’d just watched had virtually nothing to do with the reality.

“Call Northside 777” (1948) begins with the legend “This is a true story”, and more than lives up that claim. Filmed almost like a documentary by director Henry Hathaway, the movie documents the case of two Polish men who were wrongly arrested and convicted for the murder of a policeman in Chicago in 1932. 

The movie opens with a montage of period footage that details the lawlessness witnessed in some American cities during the prohibition era. On a bleak winter’s day, a policeman is gunned down in a speakeasy, whose owner Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde) fingers Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) and his friend Tomek Zaleska.

James Stewart in "Call Northside 777"

The two men are put on trial, convicted largely on the basis of Skutnik’s testimony and given 99-year prison terms. Twelve years after the crime, Chicago Times editor Brian Kelly (Lee J Cobb) is intrigued by an advertisement offering $5,000 for any information regarding the murder of the policeman.

Kelly assigns reporter P J McNeal (James Stewart) to the story, asking him to find out who’s offering the reward. McNeal learns Wiecek’s mother Tillie (Kasia Orzazewski), a scrubwoman, is behind the reward, having saved up the money over the past decade as she’s convinced her son is innocent.

McNeal, who is unconvinced about Wiecek’s innocence, bangs out a report on the poor mother travails in the hope of ending his editor’s interest in the story. But the public response convinces Kelly to goad McNeal into doing more stories about Wiecek.

James Stewart and Kasia Orzazewski in "Call Northside 777"

As McNeal digs some more and meets many of the unsavoury characters linked to the crime, he begins to believe Wiecek is a victim of a miscarriage of justice.

Hathaway treats “Call Northside 777” as if it were a documentary, with several key scenes filmed on location in what look like some tough neighbourhoods. McNeal’s portrayal of a journalist is pretty convincing (I’m a reporter, so I should know) – there are no heroic showdowns, this is just a dogged guy who sticks with the story and is willing to bend a few rules to get the information he needs.

The director’s only nod to Hollywood conventions is the introduction of a twist that allows McNeal to produce new evidence before a pardon board reviewing the case of Wiecek. Other than that, the script sticks closely to the details of the real incident. 

James Stewart made “Call Northside 777” at a time when he was moving away from the boyish romantic leads he had played in the years before World War II to a harder and grittier image that he would use to perfection in a string of Westerns with director Anthony Mann. Another star of this film is the stand-out black and white cinematography by Joe McDonald.

“Call Northside 777” is available in Regions 1 and 2 on DVD with a great transfer.

Once you’ve watched the movie, you may like to read all about the real life incident that inspired it here.