Following the Technicolor vividness of ‘To Catch a Thief’, ‘Rear Window’ and ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ and the pastoral beauty of ‘The Trouble with Harry’, at the height of his 1950’s power and freedom – what does the great man decide to do? Make a quiet, rather downbeat drama of a man wronged…in very 40’s style black and white. It would seem at this point of his career if he approached the studios and requested a couple of million to produce a drama in a shoe box featuring two mice and a claw hammer the moolah would be in the cooler immediately. Good for him. And it’s shot 1.85:1 – this and 2.35:1 widescreen always look very elegant in black and white (so familiar is the earlier decades’ 1.33:1 ratio).
‘The Wrong Man’ is the sole movie Alfred Hitchcock made with the great Henry Fonda – Fonda as big a star as Grant or Stewart but perhaps lacking some of the lightness of their touch. Here he plays musician Christopher Emanuel Balestrero (known to most as ‘Manny’)* as the eponymous man – who finds himself the centre of a murder scenario with his family and professional life rapidly sinking down the pan. His wife, Rose (played by Vera Miles, who will later appear in ‘Psycho’) needs her teeth fixed, he goes to get an advance at the insurance office and is promptly fingered for an armed robbery from the year before. Bum rap, Manny.
The picture hits the ground pretty speedily and plays for its first few minutes virtually as a silent movie, Manny finishing up late at work (the nightclub he performs in becoming more and more sparse as the titles progress) and travelling home. A nice trick shot has the camera following him through his house door – very smoothly done (this is repeated later in the picture). He is then promptly whisked into a world of police stations and suspicion, people staring at him to see if his face matches the armed robber. Manny is suitably naïve and helpful in all this, genuinely helping the cops and setting himself up for his fall.
It’s all well paced and swift with the minimum of fuss and dialogue – the black and white photography of Robert Burks adding to the bleak feel of the whole thing.
The interrogation and booking of Manny is well handled, it takes its time and lets you see the procedures that are gone through – culminating in Manny being locked in a cell. He has a permanently haunted and lost expression through all of this, believing that his honesty and innocence will get him through – whereas the only place it gets him is banged up and accused.
Fonda is great at conveying Manny’s docile personality, the authorities closing in on him ever tighter. As he takes his hat to his cell, a sweat mark is visible on the top of it – maybe even a filmmaker’s accident but, regardless, a neat little touch to suggest that beneath his calmness he is boiling.
As Manny realizes the harsh reality of his situation, Hitchcock pulls out a very bizarre camera move to express his dizziness. As he stands facing camera, eyes shut, the camera starts to spin in a circular motion with ever increasing speed until we fade to black. It’s not only unusual but completely out of whack with the rest of what we have seen in the film. It works well but feels a little like the director wants to get something more interesting into the camerawork than the rather more standard and solid fare up to now. It reminded me of the whip pan filled auction scene in ‘The Skin Game’ in its incongruity.
The procedural stuff continues as Manny is arraigned, cuffed and taken in a black maria to more cells and the mood is bleak and black, he now realizing fully the extent of his troubles. Close ups of handcuffs, shots of shoes and Fonda staring all add to the downward spiral.
It’s very atmospheric and, in its stark – almost documentary – style, dreadful and horrific. Another trick shot pops up as Manny is locked up in the real jail, a fast and effective zoom through the viewing slot in his metal cell door.
Music comes in and the die is cast…but just as he is confronted by the cell bars: hope! He has been bailed and is released to the loving arms of Rose.
Rose’s escalating madness is well handled, it beginning when they discover that a key alibi witness has since died – she cackling maniacally at this news. Her guilt over being the source of the whole problem (her wisdom teeth, not so wise in this case) powers her descent into catatonia and Vera Miles acts it all deftly and subtly, without resorting to too much ham. Their meeting with their pro bono lawyer Frank D. O’Connor (the great Anthony Quayle**) sees Rose staring into space and then Manny and O’Connor start to twig that a sandwich may have been snaffled from her picnic box.
Hitchcock pulls out a classic profile shot of Rose for emphasis as O’Connor looks at her, Bernard Herrmann’s music creeping in to ramp up the sinister.
Hitchcock’s Catholic side is never far away in his pictures, and wrongly accused people are always dominant:
Rose: ‘No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try – they’ll find you guilty’
She states plainly to a concerned Manny. This scene culminates in one of the most action based and unrestrained scenes in the film – Rose grabbing a large hair brush and striking Manny on the forehead, simultaneously cracking a mirror.
Manny’s reflection is shattered in two to mirror his own life. Fantastic. Seven years bad luck too, just when they don’t need that in their lives. She’s admitted to a sanatorium with a typically Hitchcockian staircase to welcome her.
The courtroom scenes nicely break from tradition – yes, they cover all the salient points but repeatedly cut to Manny’s expression. At one point he observes the lawyers in the courtroom – one seemingly cracking a joke, another idly doodling: for them it’s a job of work, another day at the office, for Manny it will decide the fate of his family and future. Manny is not a clever man but he is moral and decent and looks disbelieving as the others in the court don’t seem to realize the magnitude of what is happening to him. When one of the jurors causes a mistrial O’Connor asks him if he can go through it all again – and you wonder if he actually can do it, mentally.
And just at his lowest ebb, him praying to a Christ portrait in his home, Hitchcock pulls out a classic dissolve. Manny in close up, his expression almost religious, and The Right Man walking up to camera until their faces are overlapped onscreen.
A perfect storytelling technique, audacious and clever. When we see this guy try to rob another store, the ballsy shop keeper grabs a knife and bashes her heel on the floor, her husband then overpowering the Fonda-a-like.
The happy ending, with a caption stating that the mentally (and dentally) damaged Rose eventually was completely cured of her illness, gives the picture a slight upswing but it is all pretty bleak. ‘The Wrong Man’ is based on a true story and this fact does give the film a greater weight and believability. You really feel for this couple, just struggling their way through life and then the rug gets yanked away from under them – totally unfair and they’re left bereft and damaged by the end. It’s a downward spiral for the most part and at times uncomfortable to watch. I can’t say it’s an enjoyable experience but is certainly worthy. Its depiction of the (in)justice system in all its inevitable machinations is convincing and suitably scary – he’s the wrong man(ny) in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you feel for him every haunted step of the way.
Hitchcock uniquely appears in a speaking role here – as an introductory narrator to the film beautifully silhouetted in a large sound studio in the distance (indeed, it may actually not be him, just his voice).
*Manny plays the double bass – there it is again, the suggestion of a doppelganger, a dominating preoccupation. See ‘Strangers on a Train’ where the director himself heaves the same instrument on board.
**I love Anthony Quayle. He’s not much spoken about but is as good a character actor as someone like Harry Andrews, not a star but always strong and dependable. Check out ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ (wow!) or the magnificent Rutger Hauer red wine fest ‘The Legend of the Holy Drinker’ (double wow! wow!). Marvellous fella.