Call Northside 777
Ah, the gritty joys of film noir! The urban setting. The dark shadows. The prevailing atmosphere of gloom and despair. All these and more are evinced in that quintessential noir, Call Northside 777 (1948), starring James Stewart, under the direction of Anthony Mann with photography by John Alton. But wait, that's all wrong. This isn't another marriage of Stewart's desperate implacability with the visceral urbanity of Mann, but rather a film by Henry Hathaway, otherwise known for his conventional westerns (though he had just done Kiss of Death). And it isn't shot by the mysterious Alton, but rather by Joe MacDonald, whose previous films for Fox included the early noir The Dark Corner and the noirishly inflected John Ford western My Darling Clementine. And Stewart made no other film classifiable as noir, unless you count a handful of Hitchcocks, or It's a Wonderful Life and Anatomy of a Murder. Stewart made Northside as his second film after Wonderful Life, when he was both striking out on his out beyond the confines of the studio system and also trying to change his image from the romantic comedies with which he had been mostly associated, as noir specialists James Ursini and Alain Silver remind us in their make-work audio commentary track. To that end, he hooked up with producer Otto Lang to make an entry in what Ursini and Silver call "docu-noir," or fact-based crime dramas shot in the source locations in the mode of Naked City and House on 92nd Street. Northside recounts the case of a man (Richard Conte) falsely imprisoned who is freed after 10 years of incarceration through the investigative work of the initially skeptical Chicago reporter P. J. McNeal (a composite of two writers, as Ursini points out, who won Pulitzers for their work). The film also stars Lee J. Cobb as the crusty editor and the tragic minor actress Helen Walker as McNeal's wife. The narrative is powerful, but slowly paced and very much in love with highlighting the verisimilitude of then new-fangled technology such as lie detector tests and wire photos. Though mostly mimicking the grimy in-the-street reality of neo-realism-influenced movies of the time, MacDonald's camera does occasionally dip into the brooding chiaroscuro palate of noir, at one moment with a particularly stunning shot of Stewart on a nighttime front-door step with a train passing behind his head (at 1:23:35). It's just the kind of iconic shot we always remember from noir, and which tends to make us remember a whole film in that tone. Call Northside 777, part of the "Fox Film Noir" series, comes in an excellent full frame black-and-white transfer (1.33:1 OAR) with adequate Dolby Digital stereo and mono tracks, a French mono track, and English and Spanish subtitles. The disc also includes, besides the audio commentary track, the theatrical trailer, a trailer gallery for other Fox catalog titles, and a Fox Movietone News segment (1 min.) on the film's premiere, in which Stewart leaves his paw- and hoof-prints in the sidewalk outside Grauman's. Keep-case.
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