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.
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 cooperation. 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 handwriting 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 where their 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: