THE WRONG MAN (1956) – Warner Brothers – Rating: ★★★1/2
Black and White – 105 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio
Principal cast: Henry Fonda (Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero), Vera Miles (Rose Balestrero), Anthony Quayle (Frank O’Connor), Harold J. Stone (Jack Lee), Charles Cooper (Detective Matthews), Nehemiah Persoff (Gene Conforti).
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail
Cinematography by Robert Burks
Edited by George Tomasini
In the mid 1950’s Alfred Hitchcock was a creative juggernaut, with more ideas for movies than there was time to make them. Upon completion of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956, he had another four potential projects lined up. Two of them, Vertigo and North by Northwest, were nothing more than ideas at this point, and not ready to begin production. Another, Flamingo Feather, never got past the pre-production phase. And the last was The Wrong Man.
Warner Brothers already owned the rights to this story, based on a case of mistaken identity involving a New York musician named Manny Balestrero. Hitchcock had his sights on this movie for a couple of reasons; in the first place, the subject matter was right up his alley, with themes that he had explored multiple times. He also still owed Warner Brothers a movie from his previous tenure at that studio, which ended in early 1954. How badly did Hitchcock want to make this movie? When Warners vacillated on whether to give him the property to direct, he offered to wave his fee, which was virtually unheard of for an A-list director.
Source material: Manny Balestrero’s story was originally publicized in a 1953 Life magazine article titled “A Case of Identity”, by Herbert Brean. This article details how musician Manny Balestrero went to the office of a life insurance company to see about borrowing on his wife’s policy. While there, he was mistakenly identified as a man who had robbed the same office twice previously. He was arrested, booked, and appeared in court. His first trial ended in a mistrial, and while he was waiting to be retried the actual robber was caught and confessed. So Manny’s name was cleared, but at the expense of his wife Rose’s mental health. She suffered a breakdown, and spent time in a mental health facility. Maxwell Anderson adapted the Life magazine story into a film treatment, and Anderson wrote the screenplay with Angus MacPhail. The screenplay stays very true to the facts of the original case.
Hitchcock and Italian neorealism? Alfred Hitchcock frequently screened movies at his home, and one of the movies he watched in the early 50’s was Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. Although Hitchcock was somewhat disparaging of the Italian neorealism movement in general, he was quite fond of The Bicycle Thief. He once described it in an interview as the perfect double chase – physical and psychological. No wonder he liked it; that sounds like a description of several of Hitchcock’s own movies. The difference is that Hitchcock’s other “wrong man” movies, (e.g. The 39 Steps, Saboteur, North by Northwest) featured dashing leading men, caught in international intrigue, chasing and being chased from one exciting locale to the next. In The Wrong Man Hitchcock is definitely taking a cue from The Bicycle Thief. His protagonist is a member of the working class, struggling to support his family; the setting ranges from the average (New York apartment flats) to the sordid (liquor stores and prison cells). Hitchcock went so far as to shoot as many scenes as possible on location, in the actual places where the events occurred. He even used some of the original participants as supporting characters.
Hitchcock and Catholicism: This movie, along with Hitchcock’s 1952 film I Confess, contain overt religious symbolism. It is no accident that these two movies are also very similar in tone. They both lack the trademark moments of dark humor that appear even in Hitchcock’s most sinister films. I refer to them as Hitchcock’s Catholic double feature. Alfred Hitchcock was raised in a Catholic household, and attended St. Ignatius College in London. But his Catholicism didn’t end in childhood. He was married in Brompton Oratory, also known as the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Even when he was at the peak of his popularity, in the 1950’s and 60’s, he would often travel from his Bel Air home to Sunday mass at the Church of the Good Shepherd. Is it possible that Alfred Hitchcock did not want a vein of humor in these movies because he felt it would be sacrilegious? Certainly the religious overtones in The Wrong Man are not accidental.
We first see Henry Fonda’s rosary when he is being booked in the police station, and all the items in his pockets are confiscated. It is seen in a long shot, and would be of no consequence, except the booking officer tells him that he may keep it. We next see the rosary when Fonda’s character is seated in the courtroom. He is holding it in his hands, under the table, and the cross visibly hangs down. This shot is a little closer. The final time we see the rosary, it is a cut to a close up ( the picture seen above.) The implication here is that the rosary, or more specifically what the rosary symbolizes, is taking a more prominent role.
When Henry Fonda is released from jail, and his mother is attempting to provide solace, her advice is to pray. And he does so at the kitchen table with his mother. This is a very moving scene, unlike anything Hitchcock has ever shown before.
Shortly after, Fonda’s character moves into his room, where he will pray even more. This time he is praying directly to an iconograhic painting of Jesus, (which very much resembles the one that hung on my grandmother’s wall, and the walls of many other Catholic homes).
It is at this moment that the “miracle” occurs. While Henry Fonda is praying, his lips silently moving, Hitchcock employs one his most masterful shots. Two images are superimposed, one over the other. The first is Henry Fonda, praying in close up. The other is a man walking on a city street. That man walks until his head is perfectly superimposed over the head of Henry Fonda, and we realize this other man is the real robber.
Hitchcock then cuts to the robber, who is captured in an attempted robbery. That capture is portrayed exactly how it happened in reality. The fact that he is captured at the precise moment that Manny is praying is not intended as a mere coincidence or cinematic flourish; I believe this is a deus ex machina, and Fonda’s faith is instrumental in his receiving justice. While Hitchcock was reticent to discuss his faith in interviews I think this movie says quite a bit.
Hitchcock and the subjective: Just as he did so effectively in Rear Window, Hitchcock employs a lot of subjective camera work in this movie. But unlike the thrilling things that James Stewart was watching, in this movie Fonda is looking at detectives, jury members, and the bars of a cell. The viewer feels the oppressive nature of every aspect of Manny’s ordeal, from first being picked up for questioning, to being put in a cell. The scenes in the prison cell are shot masterfully, with some unique camera movements showing the confining space, and how Fonda is reacting to it. The idea of the innocent man falsely accused may have been Hitchcock’s favorite theme, and it is portrayed in the most realistic way in this movie.
Performances: Henry Fonda is perfectly cast as the titular wrong man. Fonda had the “everyman” quality that this role required, leaving the audience to believe in and empathize with the character’s travails. Anthony Quayle is solid as always in the role of Manny’s lawyer. The real standout performance in this movie, however, belongs to Vera Miles. Vera aptly captures the fragile emotional state of Manny’s wife, Rose. Her collapse, and committal to a mental hospital, are very touching scenes, some of the most touching in the entire Hitchcock catalog. One of Hitchcock’s favorite themes is the idea of guilt, and guilt transference. Rose feels guilty in many ways for Manny’s ordeal, and it is her inability to deal with this guilt which causes her mental instability. Vera Miles could not have done a better job portraying this on screen.
Recurring players: Vera Miles would later appear in Psycho. Doreen Lang, one of the insurance company women who mistakenly identify Manny as the robber, would have a couple of nice small roles in North by Northwest (Cary Grant’s secretary in the opening scenes) and The Birds (hysterical woman in diner). Henry Beckman also appears in Marnie. Paul Bryar also had uncredited cameos in Notorious and Vertigo. Alexander Lockwood was also in Saboteur, North by Northwest, and Family Plot. Clarence Straight also had an uncredited cameo in Spellbound.
Where’s Hitch? Alfred Hitchcock initially shot one of his typical cameos for this movie. In the scene where Henry Fonda’s Manny is sipping coffee in a cafe, Hitch was visible in the background. However, Hitchcock felt that his visibility in the movie would destroy the documentary feel of the subject matter. So he cut that shot out, and replaced it with an introduction to the movie. As the film begins, Hitchcock appears on a movie soundstage, in silhouette, and sets up the story for the audience.
What Hitch said: When speaking with Truffaut, Hitchcock said that The Wrong Man “suffers from a lack of humor.” When Truffaut asked Hitch if he was satisfied with the film, he replied “that faithfulness to the original story resulted in some deficiencies in the film’s construction. The first weakness was the long interruption in the man’s story in order to show how the wife was gradually losing her mind. By the time we got to the trial, it had become anticlimactic. Then, the trial ended abruptly, as it did in real life. It’s possible I was too concerned with veracity to take sufficient dramatic license.” Finally, Hitch said “Well, let’s file The Wrong Man among the indifferent Hitchcocks.”
Definitive edition: Warner Bros. finally released this on blu-ray in 2016, as part of their Archive Collection. The film looks better than ever. Included with the movie are a 20-minute documentary, and the original theatrical trailer.