15 January 2009

The Wrong Man (1956)

d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 105 mins.

The Wrong Man is Alfred Hitchcock's bleakest and most discomforting motion picture, and it's also his most underrated. It was not the director's final word on a topic that troubled him his entire life – being accused for a crime one didn't commit – but it is his most claustrophobic exploration of that situation and, considering its foundation in real life, his most plausible. While most Hitchcockian heroes are merely fingered for a crime and forced to go on the run to prove their innocence, the protagonist of The Wrong Man – a jazz musician with one of those faces you'd swear you've seen before – is in an elliptical hell where eyewitnesses think he's guilty, the police think he's guilty, and there is nothing he can do to prove his innocence. When a shadowed Hitchcock struts out in front of the camera at the film's beginning to tell the audience it is a true story, it not only makes what comes after seem all the more horrifying, but it's as if Hitchcock is saying of his own fears, Look! I told you it wasn't just all in my head!

The incident depicted in the film is based on the story of Manny Balestrero, first brought to wide attention in a 1953 article for Life magazine. He was a jazz bassist who, through a case of mistaken identity, was arrested on the charge of stealing from an insurance company. Once in police custody, Balestrero becomes victim to a freakish coincidences that keep aligning him squarely with the description of the suspect, leading to his bizarre trial and his wife experiencinc mental breakdown from the stress. I won't discuss any more details about Balestrero's case; although The Wrong Man doesn't follow "every word" of the story as Hitchcock claims in his introduction, it is similar enough that any more would spoil the film.

Balestrero is played by Henry Fonda – that great Everyman actor, in his only collaboration with Hitchcock. It's difficult to imagine anyone else for this role. Fonda's subtlety fits Balestrero's predicament, stirring a mixture of impotent anger, remorse, sadness, and fear. The immediate connection Fonda had (and continues to have) with audiences makes his selection more effective, too. Essentially The Wrong Man is the story of person sent through the ringer of an imperfect system of justice, where fate and accident can be more powerful forces than rationality and investigation, and our empathy and vicariousness fears occur with ease. Balestrero is by no means a strong man, only a man who has a will to be exonerated, and weaker people would certainly crack under the pressure (as his wife Rose, played here by Vera Miles, does).

Jonathan Rosenbaum has called The Wrong Man "the closest Alfred Hitchcock ever came to making an art film," and indeed, so much of the pleasure here comes from the execution of technique. It is not neorealism in the strictest sense of course, but Hitchcock challenged himself to bring a specific documentary-style to the film that was undoubtedly influenced by the post-war Italian directors. (He frequently screened films from all over the globe, and from Italy he was particularly interested in Roberto Rossellini, who had romanced Ingrid Bergman.) The director tossed out many of his cinematic tricks to give The Wrong Man the closest feeling to reality he could, shooting on location in New York City and filming scenes in a real prison that was housing actual criminals. (In the film one can hear a prisoner refer to Fonda by name.) Hitchcock gave cinematographer Robert Burks the opportunity to leave if he didn't want to be part of the project, but Burks stayed and his black-and-white cinematography is subdued and chilling. Likewise with Bernard Herrmann, whose scores are typically so powerful and identifiable in his films with Hitchcock; Herrmann's score for The Wrong Man is quiet, peppered with hints of jazz to reflect Balestrero's career. Edith Head, known for her extravagant costume design, did uncredited consulting on Miles's simple and monochromatic wardrobe. For a director who relished in the stylistic excesses afforded to him by fame and movie studio cash, The Wrong Man is as low-key as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a filmmaking device the director would utilize to great (some might say incalculable) success four years later in Psycho.

Hitchcock kept the film's screenwriters, Angus MacPhail and playwright Maxwell Anderson, to task with the story and intervened when they drifted too far into fiction or organized elements outside of chronological order. MacPhail and long-time Hitchcock collaborator Herbert Coleman, an associate producer, interviewed numerous people who were involved in the actual Balestrero case, including the judge, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and psychiatrists. The first half of the film, with its uncomfortable and fatalistic worldview, is as engaging as the best work done by the director. The second half, which shifts to the story to a greater distribution between Manny and Rose, can't quite maintain the intensity. But the film is so unique among Hitchcock's that it's also something that shouldn't be missed; a full assessment of Hitchcock-cum-Experimentalist would not be complete without examining this often ignored film. It is a nightmare of epic proportions, slightly shy of masterpiece status, and delivered to the screen through one of Hitchcock's subtlest maneuvers.


Dean Treadway 15 January, 2009  

I have to say: you are my new idol. In short succinctness, you have epitomized one of Hitch's greatest movies. You put my words to shame, and I love you for it.

NoirishCity.... 16 January, 2009  

Hi! T.S.
I have to agree with you (and author Spencer Selby,) this is considered one of director Alfred Hitchcock's "darkest" and "bleakest" film(s).(With all the "noirish" element presence.)
I have to second (the motion)and agree with (Dean's comment) about your most excellant review
of this "classic" 1956 film by director Alfred Hitchcock.
The "dame" ;-o

T.S. 19 January, 2009  

Dean - Wow, thanks! That's awfully nice of you to say.

The Dame - Thanks for the kind words and the supplemental information. I'll have to look into Spencer Selby. Since we agree, I already like him. Ha ha.

R. D. Finch 22 January, 2009  

I absolutely agree that this is the most underrated Hitchcock movie. Maybe that's because its low-key documentary-like style is so unlike anything else Hitchcock ever did. People have such a specific idea of a "Hitchcock movie" that they forget he sometimes liked to experiment with other styles, in movies like this one and "Rope." In some ways "Psycho" was intended as an atypical, experimental movie. Also, the bleak situation of being ensnared in a really hopeless situation was truly different from the pretend-dilemmas of other Hitchcock movies, where you knew that it was all just a harmless tease and the bad dream would soon be over. In "The Wrong Man" Fonda (who gives one of his wonderful understated performances) is exonerated by chance, but his life is pretty much destroyed. A lot more disturbing than the typical Hitchcock concoction.

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