In this series-depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, and so many other things, are quite fleeting-I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access.
In this, the sixth in my limited series of film observations, I want to pay homage to the reporter. Reporters feature predominately in noir. They are even more prevalent in police procedurals. Sometimes the line blurs.
I have selected two quite different films that both feature reporters. One honours the profession. Even if the main protagonist begins as a cynic, he evolves, becomes transformed. This classic is called Call Northside 777 and was directed by the always excellent Henry Hathaway. The second film is a formidable exploration into journalistic opportunism. Alternately known as Ace in the Hole and The Big Carnival, its director, Billy Wilder was an amazing fellow. Both fine cinematic powerhouses were shepherded by film artists.
Newspaper Noir: Call Northside 777
For reasons only a psychiatrist might be able to answer, Call Northside 777 is one of two films I have watched a dozen times at least. The other is the original King Kong.
Oh, make that three. The Maltese Falcon is solid and frequent comfort film food as well.
Call Northside 777, a film rooted in actual events, begins with an excellent documentary montage that incorporates both real and fictional footage is cinematic license at its best.
It is initially set in the early thirties.
The fading days of Prohibition.
The narrative begins with a sudden violent crime. It’s a miserable winter day in Chicago and a neighbourhood cop is warming up in a back room of Wanda Skutnik’s Speakeasy.
We then are witness to the sudden violent shooting of the policeman, the suspects fleeing, the immediate police response.
Frank Wiecek, played by the excellent noir actor Richard Conte, and his friend Tomek Zaleska are shortly rounded up and pretty swiftly convicted thanks to Wanda’s eyewitness testimony.
The prison doors slam shut.
The years move on.
10 years later, James Stewart is newspaperman P.J. McNeal. I should note here that Stewart’s character is based on Chicago Sun-Times reporter James P. Maguire, who wrote the original story on which the movie is based.
McNeal gets a new assignment. He reluctantly follows the orders of his Editor, played by Lee J. Cobb. Someone is offering $5,000 for information about the old shooting.
McNeal is a jaded reporter. He’s seen it all before. He tracks Tillie Wiecek down. Frank Wiecek’s mother has been scrubbing floors for over a decade constantly seeking enough money to pry loose what she believes is the truth: that her son Frank is innocent.
The story is written and McNeal milks it for what he thinks its worth. However, it takes on a life of its own. Bad Pun Alert: A life sentence of its own.
For my money, this film has many of the attributes I look for in a quality noir. Though missing a duplicitous femme fatale, (although there is variation on this theme in the guise of Wanda Skutnik- performed with gloriously grotesque skill by character actress, Bette Garde) it does have a protagonist who grows morally/ethically as the tale progresses. McNeal is aided by a loyal spouse, played by the tragic Helen Walker, and we catch glimpses of their life together, a beer after work, an ongoing jigsaw puzzle on the coffee table, a snarky but flexible boss, an actual city (in this case, Chicago, is featured) in all its dismal black and white beauty.
The strength of this film, aside from the acting, the location, the intensity, is how McNeal unravels the mystery. Every time I watch it, I enjoy it more.
Of course, the film is mostly set in the forties. The technologies are antiquated. Still, it is an investigative thriller, gritty, yet with an honesty about love and time and fear…well worth seeing especially for McNeal’s transformation from skeptic to advocate, and for what most will find a satisfying ending.
Newspaper Noir: Ace in the Hole
There is an argument to be made that Billy Wilder, the writer, producer, and director of the 1951 film, Ace in the Hole, is one of Hollywood’s most talented auteurs. Certainly, as others have noted, he wrote/co-wrote and directed two of the most influential and award-winning film noir, Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard.
Ace in the Hole, starring Kirk Douglas as fallen-on-hard-times big city reporter Chuck Tatum, is passing through Albuquerque.
Full of himself, even in his dilapidated state, he pitches his credentials to the publisher of a small paper, the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. Though Tatum is obnoxious and cocky to a fault, the publisher, played by one of the great character actors, Porter Hall, hires him.
A while later, while on assignment with a young co-worker (an assignment to cover an annual rattlesnake hunt),Tatum and his Jimmy Olsen-like companion pull into a full-service Tourist Trap, gas station, greasy spoon, (desert-style) and trinket emporium. It is a fortuitous stop for Tatum. The owner is stuck in a hole in the earth a short distance away.
The light goes on for Tatum. Though not to my knowledge based on any one real person, the event he stumbles on has been compared to two real-life tragedies: The first occurred in 1925. W. Floyd Collins, a skilled spelunker, got trapped inside Sand Cave in Kentucky. A Louisville newspaper, the Courier-Journal sent reporter William Burke Miller to cover the story. Miller covered the story so well, so creatively that he eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for the coverage. As a footnote, John Prine has a fine song on this story as well.
A couple of decades later, in April 1949, a similar rescue operation caught the public’s imagination when three-year-old Kathy Fiscus fell into a decommissioned well in San Marino, California.
These true stories had to have been in the mind of writer and director Billy Wilder as he wrote the screenplay for Ace in the Hole.
The story that falls into Tatum’s lap, and his manipulation not just of the innocent victims, including Leo’s wife, Lorraine,
played by the wonderful Jan Sterling, whom he encounters at the small desert outpost but also of the story itself, his consuming desire to control all aspects, the creation of the ”carnival” of attendees at his nightmarish news fabrication, his blatant opportunism, all of this is best savoured by a viewing of the film.
Newspaper Noir: Final Thoughts
As with most human enterprise, journalism is practiced by a range of personalities. Certainly, the past few decades of cable news have given a painfully valuable insight into the depths of exploitation and personal tragedy which many journalists are capable of mining. On the other hand, many victims of tragic circumstance have become more than willing cohorts.
I believe these two films represent polar opposites…in one, (spoiler alert) an innocent man is finally liberated. In the other, though there may be just desserts in store for Chuck Tatum, his like always survive. And multiply.
I hope you have enjoyed the column. I have provided some links. There is one for the film, Call Northside 777, but only a link for the trailer for Ace in the Hole although it is available on YouTube to rent.
About the Author
Bill Engleson is a retired social worker, Pickleball aficionado, energetic novelist, poet, humorist, essayist, flash fictionista, an engaged community volunteer, and pro-vaccine fellow and is resident on Denman Island in British Columbia. He has published one noirish social work novel, Like a Child to Home, which received an Honourable Mention at the inaugural 2016 Whistler Independent Book Awards. In 2016, Silver Bow Publishing released his second book, a collection of humorous literary essays entitled Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul.
He has any number of writing projects in the hopper including a local monthly column, In 200 Words or Less, a prequel to his first novel, Drawn Towards the Sun, and a detective mystery set in the 1970’s, A Short Rope on a Nasty Night.
For more information, check his twitter, @billmelaterplea, and his occasionally updated website/blog www.engleson.ca
Yay! We have liftoff, Bill! I can comment on this superb piece of writing… These old films still have some of the best plots to date. Several of these films I’ve not seen so will look for them online. <3