Theaters of Proof: Visual Evidence and the Law in Call Northside 777
74 Pages Posted: 30 Nov 2001
This Article, a collaboration between a law professor specializing in evidence and an English professor who writes about film, analyzes a film of the late 1940s - Call Northside 777 (henceforth Northside), directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Jimmy Stewart - as a study in evidence. We argue that the film, an explicit retelling of an actual Chicago wrongful conviction case, speaks powerfully to the question of what counts as proof and what persuades, both in the courtroom and in our cultural imagination. The film strongly suggests that legal conceptions of what constitutes good evidence may deviate from more broadly-held ideas of legitimate proof. Legal standards of evidence are portrayed as rigid and conservative, too willing to rely on the reliable and too resistant to novel forms of knowledge. The Article explores in detail how Northside sets up a hierarchy of evidence, with eyewitness evidence at the bottom, expert evidence in the middle, and photographic and visual evidence portrayed as the best evidence of all. We show, however, that in the end, Northside's hierarchy depends on a host of simplifications, both of the historical record on which Northside is based, and also of the ways that visual evidence is made and deployed.
We also use Northside as a jumping-off point for a broader examination of the relation between films and legal evidence. We analyze the actual use of reenactments and other films as legal evidence in the period contemporaneous with Northside, and we show that for the most part, judges shared the vision set forth in Northside of film as a nearly transparent medium of truth. In addition, we look at Northside as a "reenactment," a hybrid form that lies between drama and documentary, and show that dramatic reenactments and trials have a special relation: they are both, at heart, attempts to capture the past in an authentic and credible fashion. Neither claims to capture the past directly, but both verdicts and reenactments want to be seen as being true to the past in all of the ways that matters. The Article, therefore, suggests an important affinity between the trial and the filmed reenactment: Both are attempts to create believable stories of the past, stories not literally true that nonetheless become substitute depictions for what actually occurred.
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