The Wrong Man (1956, Alfred Hitchcock)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

January 1953. A struggling musician is accused of being a criminal…

The Wrong Man is a rare thing indeed: an Alfred Hitchcock film based on a real-life incident. The tale of a man accused of a crime he didn’t commit must have appealed to the director for at least two reasons. Firstly, it gave him a chance to retell his favourite plot: an innocent man being caught up in events beyond his control. But perhaps this movie is also Hitch exorcising a peculiar episode from his childhood.

In the first decade of the 20th century, when Hitchcock was a small boy, he misbehaved. So, wanting to teach him a lesson, his father sent him to the local police station with a note asking the coppers to lock young Alfred up in a prison cell for a few minutes. The scary experience had a long-lasting affect. Even in his advancing years, Hitch was recounting the story in interviews, saying it had given him a healthy fear of the police and of being deprived of his freedom. It’s this fear that powers The Wrong Man.

In need of some cash to help his wife pay a dentists’ bill, jazz bassist Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) visits an insurance company’s office to enquire about taking out a loan against her policy. Unfortunately, the women who work there are convinced – incorrectly – that he’s actually a man who robbed them a few weeks previously. It’s simply a matter of mistaken identity, but soon the police pick Manny up off the street and take him in for questioning…

Henry Fonda plays an excellent everyman and elicits a huge amount of sympathy out of Manny’s plight. Early on, we see him flirt with his wife and spend time with his two sons. We quickly, economically see that he’s a good, unpretentious guy. (There is never any suggestion, by the way, that the film is setting up a switcharoo twist. You never doubt Manny’s story.) It’s all the more effective, then, when one evening he’s suddenly arrested and dragged away from his family. Manny helps the police and is accommodating and calm, but he becomes increasingly numb as he’s shuffled through all the legal protocols – being interviewed, being charged, being searched, being locked up, attending a bail hearing, being transferred to a prison, being tried. His sense of hopelessness and fear is enormous.

Crucially, there’s a kind of grim realism going on here that you don’t often get in the razzle-dazzle world of Hitchcock. Rather than rant and rave, or act flippantly, or leap over a barrier and go on the run, Manny does what most innocent people would do when accused with a serious crime: he freezes, he goes pale, he becomes consumed with the dread of what might happen next. Also, the lead police detective (Harold J Stone, excellent) is not a movie-thriller dullard or a ‘bad guy’; he’s a smart, fair man doing a decent job. It’s not his fault that several (misleading) pieces of evidence suggest Manny is guilty. Likewise, Manny’s lawyer – the real-life Frank O’Connor played by Anthony Quayle – feels like a person who exists on his own terms rather than a theatrical character.

The plot also has a very affecting impact on Manny’s family. In the second half of the film, as he prepares for the defence at his trial, his wife suffers a breakdown. Rose is played by Vera Miles, who had most recently been spirited and likeable in John Ford’s classic Western The Searchers (1956). She is the film’s secret weapon, providing a subplot you don’t see coming and which ratchets up the stakes without any melodrama. Hitchcock was so impressed with her turn in The Wrong Man – especially her haunted performance once Rose can’t cope with the pressure and starts to shut down – that he gave her a five-year contract and cast her as the lead in his next movie, Vertigo (which she didn’t end up doing, but that’s another story).

All these cliché-avoiding choices give the film a depth and a breadth that the genre doesn’t usually demand. We also get a lot of real locations, rather than the artificial world created on Hollywood sound stages. Doubly real, in fact: not only are they not movie sets, but several places – the Stork Club, a prison, a sanatorium – are where the actual events really took place.

The movie’s refusal to glam up the story even extends to the resolution, which comes suddenly and fortuitously. A shot of Manny crossfades slowly to a shot of character haven’t seen before. As the man walks towards the camera, his face lines up with the fading image of Manny’s – and we realise that this lookalike is the real crook. When he attempts another robbery, he’s apprehended and arrested and Manny is off the hook. Maybe it’s fate; maybe it’s his Catholic prayers being answered. But he finally has his freedom back.

Nine Alfred Hitchcocks actually appearing on screen at the start of the film to tell you that The Wrong Man is based on a true story out of 10

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