The Wrong Man (1956)
Written by Maxwell Anderson & Angus MacPhail
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
You know something is immediately different when Alfred Hitchock himself appears on the screen, in the shadows, to tell us this film is based on actual events, unlike his other pictures. The picture is in black and white and, while the credits tell us the score is by Bernard Hermann, the music is more sedate than we expect from that composer. Events happen on screen in almost methodical fashion, people walking from one place to the other, little emotion. The first display of emotion by a character, fear, leads to everything falling apart for one person whose life ends up in tatters by the end of our tale.
The Wrong Man is based on the real-life events that happened to musician Christopher “Manny” Ballestrero, played here by Henry Fonda. Manny goes into the life insurance office to borrow a loan on his wife’s policy to pay for upcoming dental work. While he’s waiting in line, one of the clerks believes he’s the man who held them up twice before. They say nothing to Manny but call the police after he leaves, which leads to the NYPD picking him up on the way home. From there, he’s quickly swept through a justice system that pins the crimes on him with the flimsiest of evidence and has him locked up. His family scrapes together money to help him make bail, and he finds a defense attorney who believes they have a strong case. Slowly but surely, the experience causes cracks in Manny and his wife Rose (Vera Miles).
The Wrong Man is drenched in film noir’s look but presents itself in a frighteningly realistic tone. This is the ordinary person’s nightmare, to have a crime pinned on them, and the system ignores the fact there’s no concrete evidence tying them to the act. Manny moves in stunned silence when the detectives begin marching him in front of witnesses, who quickly point him out in a line-up. A handwriting comparison is made by detectives with no credentials in what is a flimsy field of forensics, to begin with. He’s not even allowed to call home to inform his wife, who makes her own calls to try and figure out why her husband is hours late for dinner.
I certainly don’t think this is the best Hitchcock film, and it is dramatically different from everything else he was doing during this period. It represented the last film he was contractually obligated to make for Warner Brothers before shifting his total energy to Paramount. That does mean he isn’t putting his full creative powers into the work, which does show in moments. Hitch is not pushing himself creatively and kind of going through the motions with cinematography and his direction of his actors. No one does a bad job; the script is just written in such a matter-of-fact way, following a direct line through the narrative.
The Wrong Man should resonate as a reflection of the current revelations about the justice system in America. For a lot of people, they are just now waking up to the complete injustices that exist in America’s “law & order,” which never harms the powerful but brings the boot heel down on the marginalized and powerless. Manny is never given a chance to speak up for himself, and he never really tries. The man has successfully been conditioned to believe that the system won’t harm him because he’s a good person. Instead, he learns the wheel turn quickly, and he is going to be crushed.
Manny is infuriatingly passive, even to the point where he gets locked in a prison cell to await trial. It’s his family on the outside who get together the bail money to get him out. What I found most interesting that Manny (and the camera) focus on little details. The handcuffs, the shoes of the other prisoners, a dark corner in the ceiling. It’s exactly how you or I might disconnect by gazing at unimportant things to distract from the existential horror overtaking us.
The film’s end should bring some raised eyebrows as Hitchcock leaves us in a pretty bleak state. Manny has been exonerated as the real culprit has been found, but Rose is so mentally shattered that it looks like she will never recover. She blames herself; it was her life insurance policy and dental problems that sent her husband to that place. However, text at the end tells us she recovered months later, and the family moved to Florida. We see a very distant shot of Manny and his family walking down a street in what appears to be Miami. But the reality of this story is that Manny’s wife never recovered and remained in state care at a mental hospital for the rest of her life. He received $22,000 for this film production and reportedly spent the majority of it to pay for her care. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Warner tacked this onto the ending because otherwise, it would have been a too pointed condemnation of the justice system at a time when compliance was expected from movies.