The Wrong Man (1956, Alfred Hitchcock)
In François Truffaut’s celebrated book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock, The Wrong Man, the latter’s 1956 exploration of the real-life miscarriage of justice experienced by New York jazz musician Manny Balestrero, prompts one of the few extended disagreements between the two filmmakers. Truffaut’s bone of contention hinges on a moment that closes the first act of the film, when after being put through the wringer for the whole of an evening by the NYPD, Balestrero (Henry Fonda) finds himself alone for the first time in a jail cell, at which point the camera begins to swirl dramatically around his forlorn, exhausted face in a showy, surreal manner — after half an hour of painstakingly straightforward, documentarylike depiction of the same man’s plight. Truffaut claims that this flourish is a disruption of the film’s explicitly stated mission of presenting an actual story without embellishment; Hitchcock defends his choice by claiming that the audience’s identification with the character renders this projection of his internal state of mind, if not wholly necessary, then certainly justifiable. At one point, after this back and forth has continued for several minutes and progressed to Truffaut questioning whether Hitchcock was even the right director to bring a “true” story to the screen — that his sense of melodrama clashes with reality — Hitchcock seems to get slightly frustrated and exclaims: “It seems to me that you want me to work for the art houses.”
For much of the previous decade, French critics such as Truffaut had been pushing the argument that Hitchcock already was doing precisely that — that for all his commercial success, Hitchcock’s work was rife with subtext and depth that defied its easy connection with the mass audience it enjoyed. Today there’s scarcely anyone who would disagree that Hitchcock’s immensely popular Hollywood movies, particularly by the 1950s, were serious-minded and ambitious works of art, but it was a novel opinion in its time, even though some of Hitchcock’s darker efforts — I Confess and Under Capricorn, to name a couple — were as tortured and morose as any downbeat European film festival darling of the same period. But The Wrong Man may very well be the first film he made that potentially takes the lofty interpretations of the Cahiers auteurists into account (assuming he ever did): a tour de force of evocative minimalism and well-contained anguish that is as dramatically and technically masterful as anything Hitchcock ever produced. It is also one of his most viscerally upsetting films, and despite its almost wry title and the presence of a big star in the lead, it does not have the feel of escapist, romantic entertainment that even a movie as bleak as Vertigo manages to attain. Instead, Hitchcock putting the spotlight on the maddening and anticlimactic tragedies and injustices of day-to-day life among the working class has just as much conviction and urgency as Hitchcock coasting around New England giggling about a dead body; it turns out he’s as good at depressing us inconsolably as he is at showing us a fun time, but that may in fact be The Wrong Man‘s downfall for some: you don’t exactly walk away reassured about love, life and security.
Supposedly to stave off audience members who’d otherwise spend 100-odd minutes squinting for his traditional cameo, Hitchcock appears forebodingly, a shadow far from the camera, at the outset of the film — before the Warner Bros. logo, even — to announce that this project is different from his usual fare, and makes a basic and quick point about truth being stranger and more dramatic than fiction. Sure it is; it’s certainly more troubling. In contrast to Truffaut’s point, The Wrong Man actually achieves an astonishingly fluid synthesis of form and content; Hitchcock, with the help of screenwriter and longtime associate Angus MacPhail as well as writer Maxwell Anderson and the director’s usual stable of cohorts from his peak decade (Robert Burks, George Thomasini, Bernard Herrmann, etc.), applies every one of his hard-won lessons about audience identification to the intimate account of Balestrero’s wrongful arrest and subsequent imprisonment, his camera gliding and cutting its way through the terrifying and cruel process of his physical and emotional confinement, a tormented journey expressed with images, most of them surprisingly haunting given their objectively mundane settings.
But Hitchcock doesn’t quite have it right either when, at the beginning of the film itself, he implies that the story he’s about to tell has all the riveting ups and downs, twists and turns of a conventional thriller. That sounds nice but this isn’t really a thriller at all — most of its suspense is vague in nature, not dependent on pace and information as is typical of the director’s films, and the more important elements of the story have to do with its mood, its easily understandable despair and its riveting presentation of actually lived experience in the very places where it was lived. While there’s some compression and conventional fleshing out of the real story, Hitchcock sticks quite strictly to the sequence and nature of events depicted, and many of those events are dead ends, coincidences, disappointments, banal repetitions and anticlimaxes (the delicatessen scene in which the “right” man is caught is a shining example of a moment that is presented exactly as it happened and that no screenwriter in the world would be brilliant enough to conjure up from thin air); no one would decide to conjure up and tell this story — even the answered prayers, a rare respite, would be dismissed as too contrived. But those disappointments, from mistrial to dead witnesses to aborted music lessons, are precisely what make this film so singularly powerful, and incidentally are what align it closely with the language of film noir: the theme is that there is doom at every turn, and you’re fucked through no fault of your own. And it really does feel like it’s happening to you, because that’s the way Hitchcock shoots it and also because its events are so devastating in their, for a lack of a better word since they really happened, believability.
Balestrero’s tale is enough to strike fear in the heart of most anyone, even as the presentation of it here trades liberally on Hitchcock’s (and, presumably, much of the audience’s) well-known phobia and suspicion of police. A bass player at the Stork Club in Manhattan, Manny doesn’t carouse with that establishment’s high-class patronage; rather, he lives in Jackson Heights and after stepping into an insurance office to secure a loan for his wife Rose’s wisdom teeth removal, he’s misidentified as a serial armed robber who’d previously held up the same office as well as several other nearby businesses near Manny’s home. On being confronted and handcuffed, Manny isn’t permitted to call his wife and children and let them know what’s happening, and is quickly railroaded by the NYPD, positively identified by the victims at the insurance agency and thrown into jail overnight, told all the while in sinister tones “It’s nothing for an innocent man to worry about,” not an easy dictum to take to heart when Manny’s picked out from a lineup and his handwriting is found to be a close match for the perpetrator’s. It’s a rather profound illustration — as good as any that exists in the movies — of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, or the fallibility of certain areas of expertise (handwriting analysis, for instance) in declaring a holistic truth.
It’s certainly an important part of Hitchcock’s strategy to bring all of this to the recognizable world we ourselves occupy; The Wrong Man is rife with incredible shots of New York, subways and all, in 1956, and reenacts numerous scenes at their actual locations, periodically using actual involved parties in lieu of actors and occasionally capturing incidental documentary evidence of life in progress, such as when Fonda’s booked into jail and real prisoners can be heard heckling the celebrity in their midst. The Stork Club gets considerable use in the film too, providing an unexpected glimpse of jet-set nightlife pre-’65; and even the sanitarium in which Rose is institutionalized, once her mental state is finally crushed under the weight of Manny’s situation, is the corresponding real place with its real staff. But the authenticity of the film doesn’t really come from its heavy use of these decidedly uncinematic settings (all of which Burks shoots and lights majestically, never more apparent as one of the most skilled and underrated cinematographers in Hollywood history) so much as from its uneasy awareness of the banality of its story, of the fact that its events are something like daily occurrences. The disruptive message is that all of the protocol and bureaucracy that we watch in action, over and over and at length, cannot save us from the infuriating simplicity of a human mistake. That these often innocent mistakes can have the power to derail and permanently damage lives isn’t lost on the director, or on us.
Talking of innocence, one reason The Wrong Man is free to toy with expressionistic ideas while maintaining its relentless use of Manny as audience surrogate, his perspective as our guiding light, is that cinema provides an opportunity real life does not: we the viewers unmistakably know of Manny’s innocence, because it can be shown to us. We also know he’s one of us, a relatively ordinary but gentle soul who loves his family and is already suffering under the constant anxiety of financial stress. All this makes the procession of random events that destroy him all the more haunting. It justifies the pounding drama (and surprising looseness) of Bernard Herrmann’s marvelous score, which at times directly suggests his work on Vertigo the next year. It merits the heartbreaking nature of the moment when Vera Miles’ Rose, at last informed of Manny’s whereabouts, is first glimpsed by Manny in POV in the courtroom after his night in jail. It makes Fonda’s terrified eyes gazing out of his cell in one nightmarish shot a moment of aching realism rather than unjustified gimmickry. And it creates the tension in the moment when actress Doreen Lang, identifying Manny in court, also seems to be accusing us. (Interestingly, she would do virtually the same thing six years hence in Hitchcock’s The Birds.)
But the cinema can also show us that most of the people who cause Manny’s arrest are no more evil or malicious than he is; Hitchcock’s outstanding staging of the initial scene at the insurance office, in which three of its employees quietly consult one another to try and determine if Manny is the man who twice robbed them, doesn’t demonize or undermine them — it plainly shows the three of them, in tight and claustrophobic compositions, trying their best to handle a horribly stressful situation. At the end of the film, when Manny sees two of them face to face after he’s finally cleared, he doesn’t look upon them with condescension or anger but with a certain resigned blankness; he knows as well as we do that it would do no good to blame them, to blame anyone except the actual crook or perhaps the police who made communication so impossible.
Inevitably, the most expressionistic flavor of The Wrong Man comes from its actors — in the end this isn’t a documentary at all, it’s a piece of drama and a piece of theater that just happens to be drawn from actual events, and the performers don’t necessarily make a play at imitation or grit. Their work is subtler than that. Fonda’s portrait of innocence here is absolutely gripping — he is awkward and sad, he’s cheerful and flawed, he’s all the things his most famous roles made him but in a lower key that renders his vast age difference from the man he’s playing (38 versus 52) all but invisible. Yet somehow, under the tense eyes and open face he does still betray just enough mystery to imply the menace that’s picked up on by his false “victims” (and eventually by Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone). Fonda was great in so many films that it’s hard to justify calling this his best performance, but it’s probably his most finely tuned and impeccably realized in terms of its function as the linchpin of a complex narrative.
Vera Miles, as his wife Rose, is equally brilliant — fully realizing her role as half of a couple struggling valiantly with everything except each other, then as a broken woman, while completely convincing us of the fusion and bridge between those two personalities. And their chemistry is easy, natural, palpable; they and their children are the rare Hitchcock family that doesn’t come under negative scrutiny, perhaps because life itself put them through enough, and there may be no other couple in Hitchcock’s canon since Leslie Banks and Edna Best that seems, at the outset and even after their lives are upturned, to deliver such a feeling of real mutual respect and warm longevity. Their first embrace after Manny posts bail is stirring in its exquisite easiness: “You’ll never know,” he says. “I know. I know,” she replies, and you believe it. (Miles’ resourcefulness and sophistication in this part, which while well-written does have all the same caveats and limitations of most domestic female roles in ’50s Hollywood films, clearly blew Hitchcock away; he immediately cast her as the lead in Vertigo, but she had to drop out when she became pregnant, and he used her instead — prominently, but in a less crucial role — in Psycho. Kim Novak is tremendously good in Vertigo, but out of sheer curiosity, the mind boggles at wondering what Miles might have done with that character.)
That makes it so hard to take when she begins to slip away from him, through no fault of either of them, and is unable to so much as hear or reply to him when she takes up residence in the sanitarium. At that stage, the story almost becomes Rose’s more than Manny’s, and as such it can be taken only as a tragedy despite Manny’s validation and freedom. Hitchcock clearly intended it as a downcast finale — the pair’s last scene together has her completely unmoved by the end of their ordeal, repeating the words “That’s fine for you,” as Fonda mournfully walks away in a prediction of Barbara Bel-Geddes’ same movement a year later — and this is only half-heartedly stymied by the insertion of a title card alleging that Rose, two years later, was “completely cured.” Almost needless to say, this wasn’t true; according to her son, Rose Balestrero never recovered from the traumas of 1953 and spent the rest of her life under a cloud, although she did remain married to Manny until the end of her life. (Rose died in 1982, Manny in 1998; Manny was consulted heavily on the film and is said to have been very pleased with the results.) Even without this knowledge or the knowledge that all of the money the family made from The Wrong Man went directly to paying for Rose’s health care, the half-second of optimism — accompanied by a quick shot of Florida, where Manny moved the family and returned to work in the aftermath — would feel insincere. It’s unmistakable that Hitchcock intends the fracturing of communication in this marriage to be his final statement, and his final declaration of the havoc wreaked upon his characters by nothing more than a chance encounter with fate. In a filmography rife with freakish incidents and dangerous psychopaths, this might be the most distressing final message he ever left us with.
This was the last of Hitchcock’s films for Warner Bros., part of a protracted deal that had risen from the ashes of his ill-fated production company Transatlantic Pictures in the early ’50s. It was also his first black & white production since I Confess, also for Warners; meanwhile Hitchcock was making history with a procession of big-budget color films at Paramount, plus a monstrously popular CBS TV series, that were increasing the intensity of his fame — interrupting all this for an intentionally modest title like The Wrong Man could be argued as a dry run of sorts for Psycho, but that film used its grittiness to make its jolts of horror more shocking. The horror in The Wrong Man is more of a pall of unease that refuses to clear even well after its conclusion. Truffaut’s feeling that the movie’s moments of embellishment were misplaced could be justified if the movie were exploiting the Balestreros’ pain; in fact, Hitchcock didn’t take a salary for the picture and its production values, including those moments when the camera begins spinning on its axis and delving us further into Fonda’s agony, are designed specifically to foster further empathy for Manny and his family. With its essentially unerring picture of stomach-churning hopelessness born of nothing more than freakishly bad luck, and of the unhelpful yet ruthless efficiency of authority figures, an argument can be made that the film comes off as more personal to Hitchcock himself than Vertigo. He alters his language to deliver this story, and does so in a manner that reminds us the extent to which cinema itself was his language — and, as ever in Hitchcock’s canon, it tells us everything we need to know.