Alfred Hitchcock’s true-life saga of a man wrongly accused may be Hitchcock’s most troublesome movie — all the parts work, but does it even begin to come together? Henry Fonda is the ‘ordinary victim of fate’ and an excellent Vera Miles is haunting as the wife who responds to the guilt and stress by withdrawing from reality.
The Wrong Man
Warner Archive Collection
1956 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 105 min. / Street Date January 26, 2016 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Henry Fonda, Vera Miles, Anthony Quayle, Harold J. Stone, John Heldabrand, Doreen Lang, Norma Connolly, Lola D’Annunzio, Robert Essen, Dayton Lummis, Charles Cooper, Esther Minciotti, Laurinda Barrett, Nehemiah Persoff.
Cinematography Robert Burks
Art Direction Paul Sylbert
Film Editor George Tomasini
Original Music Bernard Herrmann
Written by Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail
Produced and Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
The Wrong Man sees Alfred Hitchcock at the end of a series of ever-expanding directorial experiments, just before moving on to his most ambitious personal film, Vertigo. Hitchcock courted the box office yet increasingly indulged his personal taste, experimenting with exotic technical ideas: the 3-D format, extended takes, etc. But I have a feeling that by the middle 1950s he was already envious of the critical adulation afforded the work of European filmmakers — Bresson, Clouzot. When not playing it safe (To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much he avoided creative boredom by trying out a variety of styles.
At first glance, The Wrong Man would seem break several of Hitchcock’s own rules for commercial success. Based on a true story, it follows a semi-documentary mode. His cameraman Robert Burks stylizes some shots but for the most part sticks to naturalistic settings. The characters are not glamorous or charismatic (although Hitchcock excelled in that vein with his wartime Shadow of a Doubt. The plot hasn’t been customized as a thriller, with confected confrontations and exciting climaxes. The contours of the real-life story are retained, resulting in a movie with lumpy pacing and a downbeat ending. The movie is sincere and deeply felt. There’s really nothing wrong with it except that it breaks Hitchcock’s primary rule — it doesn’t please the audience.
Hitchcock begins the movie as a first-person urban nightmare. Nightclub musician Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is arrested when several women in a savings and loan office identify him as the robber in some neighborhood holdups. After a traumatic night in jail, Manny’s new status as a suspect throws his family into chaos. Circumstantial evidence and inexplicable identifications by witnesses dog Manny as he tries to establish an alibi with his wife Rose (Vera Miles). His attorney Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle) tries to help, but it is all a frustrating ordeal. Worst of all, the stress causes Rose to lose her grip on reality.
The story is broken into three distinct sections, focusing on those aspects of Christopher Immanuel Balestrero’s true-life tale that appealed to Alfred Hitchcock. The incarceration section shows the fear of the police and jails that runs through all of Hitchcock’s work. This is the most documentary-like material. Unshaven and humiliated, Balestrero is accused, processed and locked up. All of it is presented with Hitchcock’s subjective identification methods. Our hand is manacled to that of some stranger. It’s our feet that we stare at because we’re too ashamed to raise our heads. Henry Fonda’s everyman quality embodies our fears and uncertainties. His eyes are those of a film noir victim. When Balestrero tries to express his feelings of helplessness, the dialogue harks back to the fatalistic paranoia of Detour. The Balestreros’ anguish at running into a blank wall of dead alibi witnesses reminds us of the noir hero of The Dark Corner, who feels he’s been backed up into a dark corner, and someone’s hitting him, but he doesn’t know who. With his future in the balance, Manny watches as attorneys trade jokes and jurors nap.
The film’s authentic locations are deceptive. Robert Burks’ camerawork leaves little room for docu looseness. Hitchcock’s camera shows us what he wants us to see with great precision, but it doesn’t discover anything. The simplicity of the Balestrero household would seem like Italian neo-realism were it not for the presence of the stars Fonda and Vera Miles in the lead roles. Hitchcock hires big stars for obvious reasons, but also because he’s not really interested in the acting, per se. The stars are cast to type, the writer provides the witty lines, and Hitchcock is free to play his cinematic games. The nature of the Hollywood system surely misled 1956 audiences to believe that Fonda’s screen persona — innate and modest goodness — would prevail. His presence defeats the documentary feel. We’re sorry for Balastrero, but we know he’ll come through somehow. Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped forces us to share the subjective experience of a resistance fighter held in a Gestapo prison in Lyon. We don’t know the actor from Adam. There are zero commercial conventions to get in the way. The suspense is riveting from the get-go.
The second theme is the frightening specter of madness. It is horrifying when a loved one has a nervous breakdown. As if an arbitrary curse had descended, Rose Balestrero cracks up under the pressure of her husband’s trouble and loses the ability to relate to other people. The guilt and fear are too much for her, and she mentally withdraws from reality. It’s not easy to play scenes like this effectively, and Hitchcock keeps them purposely muted. Vera Miles is heartbreakingly good, making us wonder what kind of Madeleine Elster she might have made for Vertigo. The comparison between Rose’s breakdown and James Stewart’s is telling. Stewart needs Barbara Bel Geddes’ concern to deepen his melancholic withdrawal. Just one look at Miles’ profound despair and we know something’s very wrong.
Every aspect of Manny’s imprisonment was covered, but seeing Rose put away isn’t detailed to the same degree. Her descent into madness is far too abrupt, and we lose track of Manny’s subjective pulse. Instead, the movie takes a dive into its third theme, a miracle of Christian deliverance. Although the Balestreros are Catholics, the theme is presented as a visual scheme, another expressionist abstraction that’s at odds with the film’s documentary surface. Manny’s mother (Esther Minciotti, altogether too familiar from Marty) urges him to pray for strength. As if in answer to his prayer, the real holdup man is arrested. In real life it was presumably just a lucky break. But we aren’t prepared for Hitchcock’s direct linkage between Manny’s prayer to a painting of Christ, and the phantom reappearance of the real criminal. In one of Hitchcock’s most debated images, the criminal enters the frame as a superimposition over a close-up of Manny praying. He then walks forward into a close-up that aligns with Manny’s, their faces forming a near-match. In visual terms, Manny and the thief are now in a ‘twinned’ relationship: by sharing the frame with Manny, the thief may also be taking back his curse, like Dr. Karswell in Night of the Demon. Or a more basic Christian reading might say that Manny is being equated with the thief as fellow humans under God: they are equal in the eyes of the Lord. Between Manny and the thief is Jesus, linking them together. The message is the same as in I Confess: man’s secular laws dwindle before a higher morality.
Unfortunately, most audiences never get beyond the surprise and relief of seeing Henry Fonda’s ‘evil twin’ materialize before their eyes. After 95 minutes of the kind of frustration and misery that people go to the movies to escape, the sudden arrival of the thief means that something positive might happen.
(spoiler next paragraph)
Even more frustrating for audiences, The Wrong Man ends on a downbeat and slightly false note. To Manny’s horror the news of his vindication doesn’t bring about an instant cure for Rose. This development is at first a positive step away from the knee-jerk cures and psychiatric voodoo of earlier movies like Hitchcock’s own risible Spellbound. Manny’s bleak letdown is a crushing moment for the many viewers that have found themselves in a similar situation. But then the film wraps up with an awkward editiorial jumble. A lame text card tells us that Rose was eventually cured. It is followed by a lame second-unit shot of obvious doubles standing in for the Balestrero family, reunited in Florida. It’s as if Warners’ supervising editor Rudi Fehr took over for Hitchcock’s George Tomasini, and carried out orders to wrap things up fast, and on a positive note. The wham-bam finish reminds us of Billy Wilder’s Spirit of St. Louis of the same year. The final music cue even seems to have been shortened with an edit. The optimism of the final text card reads as false after the psychological doom of the previous scene. Semi-docu or not, this ending seems far too inelegant for a film by Hitchcock.
Semi-docu issues aside, The Wrong Man is basically a ‘Loser Noir’ that makes Henry Fonda into a poor unlucky S.O.B., like Al Roberts in Detour. The movie teaches some lessons that run depressingly counter to ideas of good citizenship, and our civic duty to help the police solve crimes. “Remember, an innocent man has nothing to worry about” becomes a litany on the lips of the cops that railroad Manny. His example demonstrates that an innocent man has plenty to worry about. Much of the prosecution’s case against Manny stems from his own cooperation. Manny voluntarily submits to a bunch of impromptu identification games out in the community, instead of in proper, more controlled line-ups. He plays along with the detectives’ dictation games, becoming a patsy in a handwriting comparison scheme that can only hurt him, not help him. After a couple of crazy coincidences — which happen all the time — the cops on the case are convinced that he’s guilty. The inference is that the police have the power to ‘guiltify’ anyone they want. As soon as a clue or two corroborate their suspicions, they’re no longer looking out for Manny’s best interests. The words “We wanna give you every break we can,” sound sympathetic, but they really imply a presumption of guilt. Manny constructs the case and provides the evidence for his own conviction.
It would be frightening to go up against a policeman already convinced that I was a perpetrator, as I was taught to trust and obey police of all kinds. But if I were arrested I believe the best course of action would be to say absolutely nothing and refuse to cooperate, no matter how innocent I was. The police want to nail guilty parties, and if circumstances make you look guilty…
That said, God only knows what it’s like to be arrested in a big city now. The cops of The Wrong Man are probably gentlemen compared to what might be waiting for the average man in a police station today. And this is before anybody takes into account the issue of color. I’m in no way qualified to discuss that.
Henry Fonda’s early career had him playing famous victim roles in socially conscious pictures like Blockade and You Only Live Once. His sit-in-court-and-look-guilty act in The Wrong Man is neatly used by Otto Preminger, when Fonda plays a political appointee up for high office in Advise and Consent. Having played men of unimpeachable integrity, various suspect liberals and the Job-like Manny Balestrero, Preminger makes Fonda come off as interestingly ambivalent.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Wrong Man is a satisfactory encoding of this handsome B&W picture. Robert Burks filmed a long run of classic Hitchcocks, and his attempt at a docu look can’t help but seem stylized, even in the realistic situations. This seems most evident when Manny is locked into a holding cell. Another director would sit on a shot to emphasize the feeling of entrapment. Hitchcock and Burks instead do an impressive trucking motion through the food slot in Manny’s cell door. It’s not an oversized prop, but it still feels like a special effect. Hitchcock’s most radical shot occurs when the camera swims around Manny’s head to express his mind-storm of anxiety and disorientation. It works, but seeing Hitch go handheld is really startling.
Bernard Herrmann’s moody music score is a major asset. His Stork Club dance music has just a hint of unease. The cues for the prison scenes are creepy in the same way that Herrmann’s later, equally jazzy Taxi Driver is creepy. His domestic madness themes are softer echoes of the love music in films like Vertigo.
The Blu-ray repeats the extras from the old DVD: a trailer and a featurette. Producer Laurent Bouzereau turns several critics loose on the title in search of pithy sound bites. Peter Bogdanovich is allowed to open and close the piece with the oft-told tale of 5 year-old Alfie Hitchcock being sent to jail by his father, just to be taught a lesson. Robert Osborne’s comments misdate the American impact of the French New Wave by a couple of years; Richard Schickel offers a few crumbs of wisdom. Civilians may learn a lot, while anyone who’s read a book on the director will wonder if there’s anything interesting left yet unsaid about the title.
The dramatic cover artwork looks to be foreign in origin.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Wrong Man
Video: Good +
Supplements: Docu Guilt Trip, trailer, cartoon Screwball Squirrel On Death Row
(no cartoon, just kidding. Does anybody read this small print?)
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 28, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson