But when I came across a document on the website of the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Law School, however, my understanding of how Hollywood treated this slice of journalistic history changed. Remember, Call Northside 777 is based on a true story, and here we have a detailed account of what actually happened.
What stands out is just how seemingly straight were the “techniques” used by the real journalists—James McGuire and John McPhaul—as they unravelled what is at heart a story of police corruption. Using a thirty-page statement of facts typed in prison by the defendant, whose real name was Joseph Majczek, McGuire and McPhaul followed up on Majczek’s claim that after the verdict the judge had taken Majczek into his chambers, told him he thought there had been a miscarriage of justice, and promised him a new trial. The judge had since died, but the reporters tracked down a witness to that conversation who corroborated Majczek’s account.
They went on to report that Vera Walush, who owned the “delicatessen” where the shooting occurred and whose testimony was the only evidence against Majczek, had initially told police after viewing a line-up that Majczek wasn’t the perpetrator; they also revealed that Walush’s “delicatessen” was actually a speakeasy—a fact that is known to viewers of the movie but is utterly ignored in terms of its relevance to the case—and that the police had threatened to charge her with bootlegging if she didn’t testify against Majczek; and that the judge had failed to grant a new trial as he had promised because prosecutors told him doing so would ruin his career.
The center’s memo goes on to state that there was a lot of political pressure to solve the cop’s murder quickly. “The same week he was killed, there were five other murders in Chicago—all unsolved. The Century of Progress exposition, envisioned by its boosters as a pivotal event in the Second City’s emergence from the Depression, was scheduled to open in just five months.” The mayor, under pressure from the business community to clean up the city, lest the perception of Chicago as a violent town suppress attendance at the exposition, publicly declared a “war on crime.”
And so on. It’s possible that McGuire and McPhaul pulled some of the same stunts that Jimmy Stewart’s character did in ferreting out the truth, but from the description in this memo it is more likely that they were simply smart and tenacious and appropriately skeptical. In short, they behaved like good reporters. That story would have made a good movie, too.