The Wrong Man (1956) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA rated: PG for thematic material
Running time: 105 min.
Cast: Henry Fonda, Vera Miles, Anthony Quayle, Harold J. Stone, Charles Cooper, John Heldabrand, Esther Minciotti
Cameo: Alfred Hitchcock, Bonnie Franklin, Harry Dean Stanton, Werner Klemperer, Tuesday Weld
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Maxwell Anderson, Angus MacPhail
Review published October 9, 2012
Unlike all of the other stories of innocent men accused of a crime they didn't commit that director Alfred Hitchcock (The Trouble with Harry, To Catch a Thief) would make into films, The Wrong Man has the distinction of being the only one based on a true story. After he secured the rights to the film from an incredible article he read in the pages of Life Magazine about a case in 1953, Hitchcock himself makes an appearance at the beginning of the film to state that, as unbelievable a set of circumstances that would lead to the eventual plot, that everything we're about to see is absolutely true.
In the film, a financially-struggling Stork Club musician named 'Manny' Balastrero (Fonda, My Name is Nobody) is a devoted husband and loving father of two young boys. Needing money for his dear wife's impacted wisdom teeth removal, Manny travels to his insurance office to borrow money against his wife's policy, only for some of the women there to peg him as the man who held them up just a few days prior. Tipping the cops off, the local authorities pick up Manny and take him to other robbed locales to see if they can make a positive ID of him, and through a series of circumstantial information, the case is made against Manny, who immediately goes to jail awaiting trial for armed robbery. With hardly a penny to his name, and his emotionally-distraught wife (Miles, The Searchers) needing him more than ever, Manny must find a way to keep his job, clear his name, and get an attorney to help him without much prior experience in criminal cases.
In addition to the theme of an innocent man accused, Hitchcock utilizes the opportunity to delve further into other, darker themes of his, including his mistrust of the police, his distaste for the prison system, and the Catholic guilt and prayers of redemption in a time of great need. Hitchcock paints a grim picture of a world where no one but his own immediate family seems to care about his plight, blithely going about their day without so much as a real, honest look at him, especially when they peg him as a no-good, two-bit crook.
Thanks to the help of many influential people, Hitchcock was able to film many of the scenes in the actual places in Jackson Heights and other areas of Queens, NY where the events took place, giving The Wrong Man a raw, gritty, and believable feel. One can sense the dinge of the streets and the metal and stone air of the prison system and mental institution that surrounds Manny during key moments. In many ways, Hitchcock evokes the classic noir feel of the Hollywood thrillers of the era, fitting in with a more standard tradition than a Hitchcockian on.
Those looking for a suspense film in the standard Hitchcock tradition will be gravely disappointed in The Wrong Man, which plays out most of the time like a well-produced docudrama of events that are not particularly outlandish or beyond the scope of plausibility, which is as it should be. Indeed, it was a commercial failure at the time of its release, as few wanted to see a Hitchcock film without witty lines, dastardly villains, and a fast-paced, suspenseful plot. Stark black-&-white cinematography is a true highlight, as is the hip Bernard Herrmann score (often evoking some of the beats he would later perfect in North by Northwest and Vertigo). However, what keeps the film together is a great ensemble cast of character actors, including strong work by stars Fonda and Miles, and especially rich and memorable performances by the cops, lawyers, and Manny's suffering family.
The Wrong Man is a solid film, though vastly overshadowed by Hitchcock's other, more sensational works, particularly in the 1950s, many of which were commercial smashes and artistic masterpieces. It's an interesting psychological, if somewhat subdued and clinical, look at how a family can crack under the pressure of circumstances that are seemingly outside of their control, and how the jaded people in charge of the well-being of its accused deal with their subjects with cynicism and apathy. Understandably (though unfortunately), it is often overlooked, and though Hitchcock completists are the lion's share of its viewing percentage, lovers of noir and crime docudramas will find this an excellent entry in their respective genres as well.
©2012 Vince Leo