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.)