January 17, 2011

16 CMBA Hitchcock Blogathon: The Wrong Man (1956)

Country: US
Director: Alfred Hitchcock

The opening shot of The Wrong Man, in which Alfred Hitchcock makes his customary appearance, immediately lets us know this is not going to be a typical Hitchcock film. Not only does Hitchcock come right out and say so, addressing the audience directly just as he did in his television series, but the shot itself, with an unidentifiable Hitchcock walking onto a dark sound stage lighted in extreme chiaroscuro, emphasizes how different this is going to be from the escapist fare we expect from this director. Even though Hitchcock was closely identified with movies of suspense, he clearly liked a change of pace now and then, for he regularly dabbled in other genres than the suspense film—Gothic romance (Rebecca), courtroom drama (The Paradine Case), whimsical black comedy (The Trouble with Harry), screwball comedy (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), toward the end of his career edging ever closer to the outright horror genre (Psycho and The Birds). Although elements of film noir can be detected in Strangers on a Train (1950) and I Confess (1953), the opening shot of The Wrong Man announces in the strongest visual terms that this movie is going to be Hitchcock's deepest—and bleakest—foray into the territory of film noir.

The Wrong Man deals with a subject Hitchcock returned to time and again during his more than fifty years of filmmaking—the wrongfully accused man desperately trying to prove his innocence before it is too late. This time around, as Hitchcock points out in his introduction, the film is based on an actual case, and he adjusts his typical approach, where the gravity of the situation is tempered by a sense of whimsy and the certainty that in the end all will turn out well, to reflect the seriousness of the story's origins. Here he doesn't set out to entertain by placing us in a situation where we know, just as when we step onto a ride at a carnival, that for the duration this may be a frightening experience but it's all for fun and the ride will eventually end and we can return to the normality of ordinary life. Instead he sets out to give us a sense of danger so convincing that for once we question whether the movie really will have a happy ending.

The main character is Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), a musician at the Stork Club in New York City. The film's opening passage establishes that apart from his job, Manny's life is pretty ordinary. After finishing work in the small hours of the morning, he returns home on the subway, checks on his two young sons, safely asleep in their bedroom, then goes upstairs, where he finds his wife Rose (Vera Miles) still waiting up. She can't sleep because she is having problems with her teeth and is worried about the cost of the dental work she needs. During this scene Manny and Rose have an exchange that tells us a lot about them. Manny tells Rose not to worry, that they will find a way to pay the dentist: "I think we're pretty lucky people mostly." Rose responds with her own concerns: "Sometimes I'm so frightened waiting up for you to come home at night." These two statements not only limn their basic personalities—Manny the optimist and Rose less confident and more than a bit phobic—but also foreshadow the way each will react to the disaster about to happen to them.

When Manny goes to the insurance company the next day to borrow against Rose's life insurance policy, three clerks in the office are certain he is the man who has twice robbed the office, and the nightmare begins. Picked up by the police, the naive Manny meekly cooperates with the detectives, trusting their reassuring platitudes: "It's nothing for an innocent man to worry about. . . . If you haven't done anything, you have nothing to fear." But Manny is positively identified not only as the robber of the insurance company but also as the culprit in a whole series of armed robberies. Manny is never advised of his rights or offered a lawyer, and the entire process is riddled with procedural flaws that invite misidentification and which today would never be allowed, but the movie takes place in 1953, and we have to believe that such practices were the norm then.

The remainder of the first half of the movie concentrates on Manny's arrest, incarceration, and arraignment, and in depicting this the film is truly harrowing in a way Hitchcock's lighter examples of this kind of movie never are. That this more serious treatment of the subject is never heavy-handed or overly pointed makes it all the more unnerving and all the easier for us to identify with the ordeal of the hapless Manny. At the station, as Manny is booked and locked up, the atmosphere is utterly mundane and muted, completely lacking the melodramatics of many station house movies of the time. This section of the film reaches its peak after Manny is locked in the cell. As he looks around the cell, shots of his face, with Fonda's expression subtly registering a stunned feeling of dislocation, alternate with close-ups of the physical details of the cell. There is no dialogue, no interior monologue, no background noise of any kind after the cell door slams, only the quietly sinister music of Bernard Herrmann suggesting the nightmarish unreality of the experience, as close to the mood of a story by Kafka as I've ever seen on film.

After Manny's arraignment and his release on bail (his brother-in-law manages to raise the money), the second half of the movie deals with the aftermath of the arrest, including meetings with his lawyer (Anthony Quayle), futile attempts to establish alibis for the two dates the insurance office was robbed, and finally the trial. Gradually the focus shifts more toward Rose and the effect the experience is having on her. Lacking the resilience of Manny, she slowly begins to unravel. During the meetings with the lawyer, you can see her becoming more distracted and withdrawn. When their last chance at establishing an alibi fails, she loses all hope, breaking down in hysterics. Her insomnia and loss of appetite soon progress to irrational feelings of guilt and paranoia. From blaming herself ("I've let you down, Manny. I haven't been a good wife."), she begins to question whether Manny is really innocent ("How do I know you're not guilty?"), and it becomes clear she is in a severe depressive state. Her breakdown suddenly culminates in a brief but electrifying sequence in their bedroom, shot and edited in the kinetic, fragmented style of the shower scene in Psycho, in which Rose completely loses control, repulses Manny's attempts to comfort her, and lashes out at him with a hairbrush, breaking a mirror and lacerating his forehead. Finally, Manny has no choice but to hospitalize his wife.

In his commentary on The Wrong Man, Richard Schickel notes how many references there are in the film to Manny's Catholicism. (As those familiar with Hitchcock know, he was raised as a Roman Catholic and educated in a Jesuit school.) That's certainly an accurate observation by Schickel. When Manny is booked, the desk sergeant gives his rosary back to him to keep in his cell. During the trial, he is repeatedly shown clutching the rosary under the table where he is seated in the courtroom. But perhaps the most noteworthy reference to Manny's Catholicism happens in the climactic scene of the film, one of the few times besides the scene between Manny and Rose in the bedroom that Hitchcock intervenes to heighten the moment with technical embellishment. And a stunning moment it is, the moment that signals the beginning of Manny's redemption.

With the situation at its most hopeless, Manny's mother tells him to pray. Manny goes to his bedroom and, clutching the rosary, stares at a picture of the Sacred Heart while silently mouthing a prayer. Suddenly overlapped with the close-up of Fonda praying is a quite different image—a man in a hat and overcoat, the same as Manny habitually wears, slowly walking down a dark city sidewalk toward the camera (at first I though this was Manny and that I was watching a suspended dissolve to the next scene) until finally his face and Manny's merge. At this point the overlapped image dissolves as the man turns and steps inside a shop. This man, who bears an unmistakable resemblance to Manny without being an exact double, is the real armed robber, and the shopkeepers recognize him. Is this divine intervention, or is it pure chance? In a classic example of dramatic ambiguity, Hitchcock leaves the interpretation of the event completely up to the viewer.

One thing that is never in question, though, is Manny's innocence, and that is due largely to the presence of Henry Fonda in the role. Fonda did on occasion play scoundrels, but normally his entire persona radiated that this was an honorable man, a man of simple and unpretentious integrity. Those words—simple and unpretentious—just about sum up Fonda's elusive acting technique. The decision to cast an actor known for his honesty and his wholly natural Everyman quality, rather than the charismatic movie star type Hitchcock was apt to prefer for his more commercial entertainments, is key to the effectiveness of The Wrong Man. Fonda was a great actor and in his day one of Hollywood's most undervalued, and I can't adequately express my admiration for him or for his incredibly affecting performance here, all the more moving for his skillful underplaying of Manny's alternation between bewilderment and hopefulness. This role brings out the best in Fonda's acting, above all his seemingly effortless ability to merge completely with his character without resorting to actorly gimmicks or mannerisms. You can add his Manny to the long list of his performances during the 1940s and 1950s that should have gotten him an Oscar nomination but didn't.

Then there is Vera Miles as Manny's wife Rose. In "Revenge," the pilot Hitchcock directed for his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, made the year before The Wrong Man, he cast her as a rape victim who comes unhinged as a result of her traumatic experience. It's a fantastic episode, far more elaborately filmed than any other episode of the series or any typical TV episode, and well worth watching for that reason alone. But the most interesting thing about it in relation to this film is how much it almost seems Vera Miles's audition for the part of Rose. As her performance in that TV episode predicts, she portrays Rose's slow disintegration with subtle poignancy. "Vera Miles breaks up in a way that shows how seldom one has seen untheatrical distress," writes David Thomson. "She turns plain and inept." The scene at the end of the film when Manny visits Rose in the hospital and she calmly rejects him ("Nothing can help me. You can go now.") is just heartbreaking. The dreadful misunderstanding about the robberies has been resolved and Manny has his life back, but he has lost the one thing in his life he loved the most.

It's well known that at the time the movie was made, Hitchcock was grooming Vera Miles to replace Grace Kelly as his iconic leading lady. If The Wrong Man has a weakness, it is that the second half of the film dwells just a bit too much on Rose's psychological problems, as Hitchcock shifts his attention more toward her character. I can't help wondering if Hitchcock was becoming a bit too interested in Miles as his intended muse and couldn't resist playing up her part. The story is that Hitchcock's plans for Miles, which included the role of Madeleine/Judy in his next film, Vertigo, had to be scuttled when she became pregnant and that after this the miffed Hitchcock turned his attention elsewhere. But after seeing The Wrong Man, I can't help wondering if Miles might also have had second thoughts about becoming the notoriously controlling Hitchcock's new muse and indeed about being turned into a major star. She continued to work in television and in smaller movie roles for forty more years, although she worked only one more time with Hitchcock, in an unglamorous supporting part in Psycho.

The Wrong Man may be one of Hitchcock's most atypical films, perhaps even his most atypical film. Yet although Hitchcock moves as close as he ever would to the the quasi-documentary realism and noir sensibility of films with a similar subject like Boomerang! or Call Northside 777, he never goes all the way in that direction and certainly makes little attempt to give the illusion of fading into the background as did the Italian neorealist directors like Roberto Rossellini who in part inspired such an approach. Hitchcock's presence—his role as the guiding force behind the film, the authority of his personal stylistic vision, his need to control every detail to elicit a specific response from the audience—is very much in evidence and clearly marks The Wrong Man as a product of The Master, an unusual one certainly, but nevertheless still identifiably a Hitchcock film.

For more on the Classic Movie Blog Association Hitchcock Blogathon click here. You might also be interested in my Featured Retrospective Post on Hitchcock's Young and Innocent. (See the sidebar.)


  1. RDF, this is a first-rate analysis of THE WRONG MAN and you've summed up most of my thoughts on the film. It's not one of my favorite Hithcock movies, but I admire it for what it is not. As you pointed out, Hitchcock took one of his favorite themes and turned it on its head. It's interesting that you mentioned CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (a very good film) and BOOMERANG. Hitchcock refers to those films when discussing THE WRONG MAN with Truffaut in the HITCHCOCK book. He points out that, in those films, there's an "investigator on the outside" trying to prove the lead character's innocence. In contrast, THE WRONG MAN is told solely from Manny's perspective--it's an inside viewpoint. Again, a fine write-up on an atypical Hitch film that many film buffs haven't seen.

  2. Despite its flaws, The Wrong Man is one of those Hitchcock films that I find myself returning to time and time again primarily because of its heavy film noir influences and the fact that it eschews the usual escapism of most Hitchcock movies. I think what fascinates me about Man is that one of its plot elements--the whole "mistaken identity" theme--resonates even today when you stop to consider that though we like to tell ourselves this sort of thing can't happen innocent people are jailed for crimes they didn't commit on the basis of misidentification.

    The Wrong Man is planted firmly on my list of top ten Hitch films...and I also like the fact that you have high regard for Young and Innocent (I clicked on the review on the side bar), which is another favorite of mine as well. All in all, an outstanding contribution to the blogathon, good sir.

  3. Admittedly I haven't seen this film so I was thrilled that you chose it to review! Your vivid descriptions and interesting detail make me all the more anxious to give it a try.
    A wonderful review that Hitchcock himself would be proud of.
    Page at My Love Of Old Hollywood

  4. Rick, I haven't read the Truffaut book, only excerpts from it and then not in many years, so it's interesting to hear he mentioned those two films in relation to "The Wrong Man." His comment about his film telling the story from the inside is a great one. To my mind, Hitchcock made about a dozen outright masterpieces, and although this one falls short of those, it's still a wonderful movie and for me Hitchcock's most underappreciated, which is why I chose to write on it. I like it for dealing with the familiar in what was for Hitchcock an unfamiliar way. He's universally recognized for being a master of the impeccably crafted entertainment but not given enough credit for his artistic stretches, which on the whole don't tend to be as successful as his work in the more familiar vein but still deserve respect.

    Ivan, it's that noir feeling that attracted me to "This Wrong Man" in the first place and kept it in my mind after first seeing it years ago. Like most classic movie-lovers, I'm a sucker for the postwar American film noir. I find even lesser examples of the genre more entertaining than what must objectively be admitted are better movies. "The Wrong Man" shows the fallibility of eyewitness identification long before if was verified by psychological experiments and later by DNA evidence. As you note, it's still relevant today because it also shows how suggestible eyewitnesses are and why the conditions under which such identifications are made must be carefully controlled long before this was recognized. The way Manny is sent into the stores that have been robbed after the victims are told the police are sending in a suspect, and the way the clerks in the insurance office discuss the identification and then make it together is, by today's standards, just astoundingly inept. If "The Wrong Man" is for me Hitchcock's most overlooked later work, "Young and Innocent" is his most overlooked early work, and I'm pleased to hear you also regard it highly.

    Page, thank you for your kind comment. Although it may take me awhile, I'm looking forward to reading your post on "Marnie" and all the others in the blogathon too.

  5. R.D.: This sounds fabulous. I haven't seen it in years, so I need to re-visit. Oddly though, I'm somewhat skittish to see this film, for personal reasons.

    I've had close friends tell me they've seen me someplace where I've been nowhere said place. Yet they swear it was me. This has happened on more than one occasion. Once a guy in a bar told me I looked like his cousin.

    I'm afraid my double will commit a crime and I'll be picked out of a line up. So I've been averse to seeing this again over the last couple of years. But your description of it is so good, I need to overcome my reservations.

  6. I have not seen "The Wrong Man" for a while, but your review reminds me of its disturbing impact. Yes, much more realistic than what one expects from Hitchcock, but further proof of the scope of his mastery. A very fine, detailed an perceptive account - enjoyed it tremendously, R.D., thanks...

  7. Thank you for this in-depth review. I have not seen "The Wrong Man" (shame on me), and I will have to change that.

  8. I think this is a quite excellent review of an underrated Hitchcock classic. It doesn't reach the same level as some of his other films, but it is an intriguing entry in the director's catalogue of work nonetheless. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this movie--I truly enjoyed reading them!

  9. Describing this movie as Kafka-like is right on the button. It reminds me so of Kafka's "Metamorphosis", an ordinary man who finds himself in a nightmare world where no one recognizes him for what he truly is. Fonda is great in the part, and although Miles is not one of my favorite actresses, she is heartbreaking in her performance.

    I haven't seen this in a long time, and your truly excellent review makes me want to run out and get it today!

  10. R.D. You usual top notch analysis on this interesting AH film. I have watched it a few times over the years and always find myself conflicted. It definitely has the typical Hitchcock themes (that of a wrongfully accused man, Catholicism) along with the noir qualities you mention. Still. I just find the film a bit out of sorts and I think it has to do with what you mention about Hitch spending too much time on Vera Miles breakdown in the second half. It derails the film and Miles is not the most interesting actress. Fonda is great and the film is worth watching alone for his performance.

  11. R.D., this is a heartfelt salute to a film that is often overlooked and undervalued. It has been too long since I have viewed it and your passion for it inspires me to want to revisit it again. Henry Fonda is a magnificent actor whose gentle persona here is given a 180 degree turn in "Once Upon a Time in the West." But, most of the time, Henry played a regular, decent fellow, and the ramifications of the wrong accusation are unspeakably sad for him, his fragile wife, and their family. Film noir indeed, in look and result. You have a unique skill of being a visual writer, R.D., and I truly appreciated your excellent article.

  12. Interesting review of this lesser-known Hitchcock film. I like your discussion of Hitch's different approach yet return to similar themes and motifs.


  13. I haven't seen this movie yet, but I know I need too. Great review!

  14. It's just about midnight in California, and I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to leave a comment today about my post. Thank you all for the kind words, praise, and especially your own views about the movie. I'm still working on reading everyone else's posts, but I can already say what a smashing success--and what a lot of fun--this blogathon has been.

  15. The Wrong Man is in my que to watch. Thanks for the heads up that this one strays a bit in tone from the usual Hitchcock fare.

    I figured it would be rather dark and brooding simply from the presence of Fonda, who will often make a part gripping and realistic. [I was pleasantly surprised that he makes a great straight man in comedies like The Lady Eve.]

    Thank you for commenting on my blog today. I appreciate your contribution.

    - Java

  16. R.D. I have not seen the Hitchcock film, "The Wrong Man". But your review is very detailed and has inspired me to add it to my "must see" list of films.