This black-and-white film is a classic, starring James Stewart, and is based on an actual story which occurred in 1932 in Chicago, Illinois. In that year, there were 365 murders in the city of Chicago, one for each day of the year. The actual locales which were part of this story were shown in the film, the Chicago Times, the court house, and the prison.
James Stewart - Wikimedia
James Stewart plays the role of a Chicago Times reporter, P. J. McNeal, who is assigned by his boss, Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb) to follow an ad which was placed in the paper offering $5000 for information about the murder of a policeman, John Bundy, who was killed 11 years ago.
“Mac” called the phone number, Northside 777, and spoke to Tillie Wiecek, who had scrubbed floors for 11 years to earn the $5000. Tillie believed that her son Frank (Richard Conte) and his friend Tomek Zaleska were innocent of the crime for which they were sent to prison for 99 years.
Details of the Crime
Bundy was killed in a grocery store run by a woman named Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde). Wanda’s store was actually a front for a speakeasy. Frank Wiecek was on probation at the time for a neighborhood robbery where he stole $2. He was placed in a police line-up viewed by Wanda Skutnik three times. Wanda did not pick out Frank Wiecek the first two times, but fingered him in the third line-up. His friend Tomek Zaleska had stayed overnight at Frank’s house on the night of the murder, which made him a suspect also. Wanda Skutnik was afraid of being arrested for her bootlegging activities and gave into police pressure to point out the suspects.
Richard Conte - Wikimedia
Mac Has Doubts About the Case
“Mac” had a firm belief initially that Wiecek and Zaleska were guilty, but he promised Tillie Wiencek that he would look into the situation to find if anything had been overlooked. Mac’s wife Laura (Helen Walker) felt great sympathy for Tillie Wiencek and encouraged her husband to investigate the situation. However, police authorities and the district attorney’s office did not cooperate with Mac since they bristled at any criticism of police procedures and convictions.
A Visit to Illinois State Penitentiary
Mac visited Frank Wiencek at the Illinois State Penitentiary and asked him if he would agree to take a lie detector test. Frank said he had been waiting years for that chance. It is interesting that the inventor of the Polygraph test, Leonarde Keeler, explained and administered the test to Frank Wiencek in the film. Frank passed the test, but as we know, a Polygraph test is not admissible in the court room.
Frank Wiencek explained to Mac that his alibi to the police for the evening of the murder was that he was helping his wife crack walnuts for a cake she was baking. Frank’s wife, Helen (Joanne De Bergh) told the police that she and Frank were pitting dates for the cake. This small discrepancy led the police to believe that Frank was lying, and he was arrested for the killing, along with Tomek Zaleska, who had turned himself in, claiming that he stayed overnight at Frank’s house that night.
Helen Walker - Wikimedia
Frank’s Trial was Flawed
Frank also told Mac that his lawyer was a drunk and would not allow Frank to testify. The lawyer had since been disbarred and was no longer a member of the profession. When Frank and Tomek were declared guilty, the judge told the two men in his chambers that he believed they were innocent, and that they should get another trial. Frank recalled that the bailiff was present when the judge spoke to the men. Unfortunately, the judge died shortly after, and the bailiff died recently also, and Mac was unable to verify Frank’s story.
Frank Asks Helen to Divorce Him
Frank told Mac that he asked his wife Helen to get a divorce. He was concerned that his son Frank was being bullied by his school mates. Helen loved Frank and did not want to divorce him, but she eventually gave in, and met and married a man named Rayska (E. G. Marshall) who took good care of her and her son. Mac interviewed Helen and slowly began to believe that Frank did not kill the police officer.
Lee J. Cobb - Wikimedia
Frank Wants No More Publicity
Kelly got a call from the prison warden stating that Frank wanted to talk with Mac again. Mac drove to the prison and was surprised that Frank wanted him to stop writing about him and his family. The publicity was having an adverse effect on his son as well as his wife. Frank’s son had taken the name Rayska, and now his identity was again compromised. Frank wanted it to stop.
The warden confided in Mac that the prisoners all believed that there were just two men in their prison who did not belong there – Frank Wiecek and Tomek Zaleska. Mac spoke with Tomek on that visit, and Tomek told him that he and Frank had nothing to do with the murder.
Mac Digs Deeper
In spite of the fact that the police were not cooperating with Mac’s investigation, he was able to look up the archives of the case. He learned that Frank Wiecek was arrested on December 22, 1932 and was booked on the afternoon of December 23, 1932. Wanda Skutnik insisted that she had no contact with Frank Wiecek before confronting him in the courtroom. Mac was able to access some pictures, one of which showed Frank and Wanda entering the court house at the same time. However, the photo was not dated, and could not prove that Wanda had seen Frank before entering the courtroom.
Chicago Sun-Times (now demolished) - Wikimedia
Mac Finds Wanda Skutnik
Mac decided that he had to find Wanda Skutnik, and began combing all parts of Chicago which featured bars and saloons which might help to locate Skutnik. A woman in one of the bars overheard his conversation and told Mac that she knew Wanda Skutnik. She was now Wanda Siskovitch, and Mac was given her address. She was furious and would not cooperate. He had to leave.
Mac is Pressured to End His Investigation
Kelly informed Mac that Mr. Palmer, the publisher of the Chicago Times requested Mac to attend a meeting. The district attorney and a representative of the police force informed him that they did not like the way he was handling the Wiecek case, and would like Mac to attend a special hearing the next week. They insisted that if Mac’s findings were negative and entered into Wiecek’s records, they would be gambling with Wiecek’s parole. The hearing was called off.
New Process for Enlarging Photographs
Mac visited Tillie Wiecek once more and told her that he had to end his investigation. It had gotten nowhere. When he left Tillie and took a cab, a newspaper in the cab caught his attention. It referred to a new police process of enlarging photographs. The photo that Mac had accessed of Frank and Wanda entering the courthouse also showed a newsboy in the background with a stack of newspapers under his arm.
E. G. Marshall - Wikimedia
Mac returned to Mr. Palmer’s office and insisted that he wanted to have the special hearing because he would have additional evidence for them. After some tense moments at the hearing, Mac brought the men to police headquarters where a photographer was in the process of enlarging the newsboy’s photo. Sure enough, the date on the newspaper was December 22, 1932, indicating that Wanda had seen Frank before entering the court house. The key witness’s statement was proven false.
Mac accompanied Frank out of the prison door, stating that “It’s a big thing when a sovereign state admits an error.” It took the courage of a newspaper and one reporter’s refusal to accept defeat to unearth the truth and release two men from prison after 11 years.
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