Reel Rumbles: “Call Northside 777” vs. “12 Angry Men”
If people view the world through the distorting lenses of bias and ignorance, what hope is there for impartial justice? This isn’t a postmodern quandary; it has always been understood that innocent people go to prison as a result of mismanaged trials, misguided jurors, and misinterpreted evidence. Guilty people, too, can be convicted for the wrong reasons. The plight of the accused is the subject of two of classic cinema’s best depictions of justice in jeopardy: Call Northside 777 and 12 Angry Men.
All rise as the honored disputants enter the Flickchart courtroom.
Exhibit A: The Crimes
In gangland during the last days of Prohibition, one of Chicago’s finest is gunned down. A couple of Polish men are fingered for killing the cop, and eyewitness testimony convinces the jury to send them to jail for 99 years. One of them, Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), has a prior arrest for theft, and during his first decade in the hoosegow his wife divorces him—not compelling evidence of his innocence. By the time Frank’s mother, a first-generation immigrant named Tillie Wiecek, posts a $5000 reward in The Chicago Times for information exonerating her son, the case is very cold. The judge that sentenced Wiecek is long dead, and a key witness has disappeared among the hovels and saloons of Chicago’s “Back of the Yards” slum. Thus Call Northside 777 begins.
A couple of decades later, in a Hispanic neighborhood in New York City, a man is stabbed to death in his apartment next to the train tracks. His 18-year-old son is arrested, and all his neighbors come forth to testify. One man heard the boy threaten his father, but wasn’t a loud train clattering by at the time? The downstairs neighbor heard the body hit the floor and went to check it out, but how fast did he walk? A woman says she saw it all as she was drifting off to sleep, but those impressions on the side of her nose—was she wearing her glasses in bed? The trajectory of the stab wound, the similarity of one switchblade to another: every detail of the day is painted and repainted, with words rather than images, and the more we know the more we know we don’t know.
Although this court appreciates the cultural-historical complexity of Call Northside 777, the crime itself is considered in far greater detail in the brief submitted by 12 Angry Men. I find in favor of the latter, and I sentence Call Northside 777 to a refresher course in forensics despite its thorough research into lie-detector tests and its clever use of photographic augmentation.
Exhibit B: The Crime Scenes
Call Northside 777 is a documentary-style tour of Chicago, the first major production shot on location in the Windy City. The best shots are of the cavernous cell-block silo in the Stateville Correctional Center where Wiecek is imprisoned. The action also unfolds in tenement stairwells, taverns, suburban homes, and the busy floor and management suite of The Chicago Times newspaper office.
12 Angry Men doesn’t take us to the scene of the crime, but the room it takes place almost entirely within is the potential scene of a crime: a miscarriage of justice if jurors fail to take their duties seriously. The theatrical enclosure, a bare conference room and adjacent restroom, is minimalism par excellence. Unable to escape each other or themselves, the 12 jurors sweat out their issues as a fragmented but single unit. This is a tour of social topography, if not geography.
I rule in favor of the visual authenticity of Call Northside 777, and I sentence 12 Angry Men to several hours of solitary confinement. However, I hereby release the jurors in recognition of time served.
Exhibit C: The Champions of Truth
Reporter P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) doesn’t believe in Wiecek’s innocence. He’s no bleeding heart, no social justice warrior. But his editor, Brian Kelly, is: Lee J. Cobb plays Kelly like a liberal lion, sensitive but self-assured. McNeal would rather write about the dead cop than the convicted cop-killer, but Kelly smells more than a sob story—and more than newspaper sales—in the Wiecek case. The more McNeal digs into it, the more uncertain he becomes. The skepticism he lives by remains intact, but it slowly shifts away from Wiecek and onto the judicial system. When a city leader accuses McNeal of “unnecessarily discrediting this regime,” he finally understands what the story is really about.
Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) is the lone contrarian in a room full of conformists. The other jurors are not all alike, but they each have their own reasons—some selfish, some inspired by bigotry, and some honestly come by—for voting to convict. Exactly why Juror 8 sees things differently, with the eye of Sherlock Holmes and the devotion to justice of Oliver Wendell Holmes, is a mystery, and besides the point: he is meant to represent the better angels of American justice, the system as it is supposed to work, the standard of reasonable doubt personified in the figure of a nameless hero.
Although the patience and analytical genius of Juror 8 are commendable, I find him guilty of being too good to be true. Far more compelling is Call Northside 777’s flawed but redeemable reporter, P.J. McNeal.
Exhibit D: The Curious Case of Lee J. Cobb
As McNeal’s editor, Cobb lurks in the background, concealing his motives behind an inscrutable grin and sad eyes. He shrugs, he speaks softly, he has a way of seeming to take no for an answer when the only possible reply to him is “yes.” He is a moral center, but a quiet one.
As Juror 3, Cobb is the loudest voice for conviction. He blusters and shouts, threatens murder, tears up a picture of his estranged son, and breaks down in tears. He is out for blood, and he is Juror 8’s most intractable opponent. He carries the bulk of 12 Angry Men’s drama on his shoulders.
The balance of evidence in the civil suit of Cobb v. Cobb favors 12 Angry Men. I would sentence Call Northside 777 to a penance, but editor Kelly already seems to be doing his own private atonement for some unknown sin.
In the court of Flickchart there are a lot of easy choices. This is not one of them. Just as there is no simple right or wrong in the case before us, there are seldom clear answers in a court of criminal law. While Call Northside 777 clearly believes that Frank Wiecek is innocent of the murder of a Chicago policeman, 12 Angry Men is agnostic about whether its defendant murdered his father. The position it takes is more subtle: that reasonable doubt of guilt, not certainty of innocence, is the appropriate standard by which to decide a murder case.
Call Northside 777 surely would not disagree with this standard, but it gives itself a leg up by writing a highly sympathetic criminal. It derives much pathos from Frank’s self-sacrificing interactions with his ex-wife (Joanne de Bergh), evidence of which this court found moving but dismissed as immaterial and struck from the record.
My hands are tied by the facts of the case and by precedent. Though I take no pleasure in doing so, I sentence Call Northside 777 to a Flickchart global ranking of 2853, where it is to remain until more users rank it. I rule in favor of 12 Angry Men and release it to its position at #48. Let the record show that the large gap in the films’ rankings is not reflective of a similar gap in quality.