Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Wrong Man is Alfred Hitchcock at the end of a series of ever-expanding directorial
experiments, just before moving to to his most ambitious film, Vertigo. While maintaining
a strong commercial acceptance he indulged his cinematic imagination up through
Rear Window, coasting only slightly
at the end for his popular To Catch a Thief, his remake of
The Man Who Knew Too Much and the
quirky comedy The Trouble with Harry.
In The Wrong Man breaks all of his own rules. It's based on a true story and follows a semidocumentary
mode, using stylized camerawork but naturalistic settings and characters. The plot hasn't been customized
as a thriller and although played by movie stars, the characters aren't glamorized. The contours of the
real story are retained, leaving the movie in lumpy sections with a downbeat ending. There's nothing wrong
with this picture except that it breaks Hitchcock's primary rule - it doesn't please the audience.
Nightclub musician Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is arrested for some neighborhood
holdups when several women identify him as the robber. This throws his family into chaos as he
tries to establish an alibi with his wife Rose (Vera Miles). With only his closest associates and
family believing him innocent, he begins a nightmarish ordeal. Worst of all, the stress is causing
Rose to lose her grip on reality.
This story is broken into three distinct sections, the 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 shown with a sustained subjective-identification
method. Our hand is manacled to some stranger's. It's our feet that we stare at because we're too ashamed
to raise our heads. And Henry Fonda's everyman quality embodies our fears and uncertainties. His tortured
eyes are those of a film noir victim. When Balestrero tries to express his feelings of helplessness,
some of the dialogue harks back to the fatalistic paranoia of
Detour. The Balestrero's 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.
The real locations are deceptive, as Robert Burks' precise camerawork leaves no room for docu looseness. The
simplicity of the Balestrero household would seem like Italian neo-realism if it weren't for the presence
of the stars Fonda and Vera Miles in the lead roles. Their work can't be faulted, but the nature of the
Hollywood system surely misled 1956 audiences to believe that Fonda's screen persona - innate and modest
goodness - would prevail. The trial part of the story is a brief extension of the prison scenes, showing
the courtroom process as a risky business. Manny watches attorneys trade jokes and jurors nap while his life
hangs in the balance.
The second theme is the frightening specter of madness, the knowledge that a loved one or perhaps ourselves
might have a nervous breakdown and become like Rose Balestrero, a lost soul unhinged from the ability to
relate to other people. As if some curse were being levied on the Balestreros for no fault of their own,
Rose cracks up under the pressure of her husband's trouble. The guilt and fear are too much for her, and
she mentally withdraws from reality. Hitchcock keeps these scenes purposely muted. It's not easy to play
them effectively and Vera Miles is heartbreakingly good, making us wonder what kind of Madeleine Elster
she might have made for Vertigo. The comparison between her breakdown and James Stewart's is telling.
Stewart needs Barbara Bel Geddes' pathos to deepen his melancholic withdrawal. Just one look at Miles'
profound despair and we know something's very wrong.
The Wrong Man has to change gears quickly to get into the madness theme, and for some people the
switch is far too abrupt. We lose track of Manny's subjective pulse; every aspect of his imprisonment
was covered but seeing Rose put away isn't detailed to the same degree. Instead, the movie takes a dive
into its third theme of a religious deliverance, a religious miracle.
Although the Balestreros are Catholics, the theme is presented only visually. Manny's mother (Esther
Minciotti of Marty) urges him to pray not just for Rose but for strength, and in answer to his
prayer, the real holdup man is arrested. In real life it was just a lucky break, surely one the Balestreros
were praying for. On screen, Manny wails that the real crook may already be in another state
or in jail. But we aren't prepared for Hitchcock's direct link between Manny's prayer to the image of
Christ on his wall, and the reappearance of the real criminal. In one of Hitchcock's most debated images,
the criminal enters the frame as a superimposition, and then walks forward to align his face with Manny's,
staring in prayer. In visual terms, it links Manny and the thief in a 'twinned' relationship, as if
by sharing the frame with Manny, the thief is taking back the 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, that, as fellow humans under God, they share
the same guilt and are looked at equally in the eyes of the Lord, no matter what the law says. Unfortunately,
most audiences never get beyond the surprise and relief at seeing Henry Fonda's 'evil twin' materialize
before their eyes; in a scenario of frustration and misery, now something positive might happen.
(spoiler next paragraph)
Also to the detriment of audience satisfaction, 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. That part
is a big step away from the knee-jerk cures of the psychiatric voodoo of earlier movies like
Spellbound. But after this bleak let-down,
Hitchcock lets a lame text card tell us that Rose was eventually cured, and a 2nd unit shot (with obvious
doubles for the Balestreros) shows the family reunited in Florida. Hitchcock never resorted to that kind
of narrative crutch, so the ending seems odd. Also, the optimism of the text clashes with the psychological
doom of the previous scene. Finally, the text drops the info that
the Balestreros had to leave New York. As Manny was practically a celebrity citizen, surely notoriety didn't
drive him away. We have to think that the stigma of being in an asylum urged the family to find a new home.
Besides the nagging, noirish lesson that society is no damn good, the movie teaches some other
possibly rules. "Remember, an innocent man has nothing to worry about" becomes a litany on the
lips of the honest cops who railroad Manny. The Wrong Man demonstrates that an innocent man has
plenty to worry about. A lot of the prosecution's case against Manny stems from his own
Manny voluntarily submits to a bunch of impromptu identification games out in the community, instead of in
more controlled line-ups. He plays along with the detective's dictation games, becoming a patsy in a
comparison scheme which can only hurt him, not help him. The inference is that the police have the power to
'guiltify' anyone they want. Once they're convinced Manny's culpable, they're no longer out
for his best interest. "We wanna give you every break we can," they reason.
It would be frightening to go up against a policeman, as I was taught to trust and obey them. Gut if I were
arrested I believe the best course of action would be to say absolutely nothing and refuse to cooperate with
them, no matter how innocent I was. The police want to nail guilty parties, but suppose circumstances
made 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's waiting for the average man in police stations today.
Also, along with all of the existential anxiety, The Wrong Man shows us a family that was
relatively fortunate in most essentials. Unlike the Italian neorealist people, they live in a society
lives and property have some degree of security. Nobody's bombing their neighborhood and the kids aren't
going to be murdered in the schoolyard or blown up on a bus. Back in 1956 the idea of being wrongly
imprisoned was a nightmare, today it seems to happen all the time.
Warner's DVD of The Wrong Man presents this widescreen film in an enhanced transfer that is good
but not exceptional, with some shots grainy and others not as cleanly encoded as they might be. The quality
shift is only apparent on big screens. Bernard Herrmann's moody music sounds great. The prison
scenes have a creepy quality more like his later Taxi Driver work, and the domestic madness themes
are softer echoes of his love music in films like Vertigo.
The extras are a trailer and a Laurent Bouzereau docu that lets several critics loose on the title. Peter
Bogdanovich is allowed to open and close the piece with the usual tale of 5 year-old Alfie Hitchcock being
sent to jail by his father. Robert Osborne predates the French New Wave by several years and Richard
Schickel offers a few nuggets of wisdom. Civilians will learn a lot and 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 art looks to be foreign in origin.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Wrong Man rates:
Supplements: Docu Guilt Trip, trailer, Screwball Squirrel In Prison cartoon
(no cartoon, just kidding. Does anybody read this small print?)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 25, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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