The Wrong Man (1956)
The Wrong Man (1956)

Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 45 min.

Release Date: December 23rd, 1956 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Alfred Hitchcock Actors: Henry Fonda, Vera Miles, Anthony Quayle, Harold J. Stone, Charles Cooper, John Heldabrand, Esther Minciotti, Doreen Lang, Laurinda Barrett

 


 

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lfred Hitchcock himself – shown in a striking silhouette – introduces the picture, suggesting that this will be a different kind of thriller. Stranger than fiction, “The Wrong Man” will be most notable for its basis in reality, as the characters are real people from real situations. Nevertheless, the tale will involve Hitchcock’s signature levels of suspense, shaping a true tale that finds a man in the predicament of a lifetime.

After finishing his set at the upscale Stork Club in 1953, jazz bassist Christopher Emanuel “Manny” Balestrero (Henry Fonda) takes the subway to a little New York cafe, where he marks out Hialeah racing bets on his newspaper (not to place actual bets, but because he likes the arithmetic). When he eventually arrives back at his Jackson Heights home, his two sons are fast asleep, but his wife Rose (Vera Miles) is up, worrying over the pain and cost of removing her wisdom teeth. If only they had the $300 to cover the procedure so that they wouldn’t have to go into debt.

It seems as if the Balestreros are a typical American family, happy in the makeup of their customary household and content with their work, but struggling with middle-class woes. Unexpected expenses get in the way of their happiness, but it’s not of the crushing kind that prevents acknowledgement of their good fortunes. So when Manny visits the bank to look into borrowing against his wife’s insurance policy, he thinks nothing of the clerk’s fearful expression and her consultation with two additional employees, each one believing that Manny is the suspect who held up the branch just a few days before. But surely he must be the wrong man?

“I’m completely innocent!” Accusations are made, the police get involved, an investigation is opened, and Manny’s movements are surveilled. Before he can inform his wife of the mixup, he’s stuffed into the back of a cop car and hauled to the nearby precinct, where his imbroglio worsens. “It’s nothing for an innocent man to worry about,” assures the lead detective.

But, with Hitchcock clearly at the helm, the matter can’t be resolved so easily. Fusing a police procedural – highlighting the deficiencies and outmoded routines of policework of the era – with a crime thriller, “The Wrong Man” is immediately absorbing. Circumstantial evidence against Manny accrues, building upon misidentification, deteriorating eyewitness memories, the way a motive can be conjured out of nothing, coincidental handwriting comparisons, and the absence of lawyers during interrogations. It’s exasperating and tense, particularly as the audience is given only enough information to assume that Manny is innocent – causing his booking and arrest and incarceration to be just that much more antagonizing.

“But it’s the truth!” Interestingly, law enforcement doesn’t seem to be especially anxious to nab a culprit. They’re not presented as bullies or villains; here, it’s more about the horrors of a sudden deprivation of freedom, exemplified firstly by a long night in a jail cell, and then the routines of traveling back and forth from prison, appearing in a lineup, standing before a judge, receiving a bail amount, and going through a trial. The film is very much a demonstration of the legal process, scrutinizing the way the system is unfairly harsh on the poor (and unaccommodating for the innocent), taking on a documentary feel from time to time.

The ordeal could serve as a cautionary tale were it not for Manny’s inability to defend himself against false accusations, or to control the events surrounding his initial lockup. His helplessness is frightening. But in its efforts to be comprehensive about the proceedings, educating audiences who might not know the ins and outs of a run-in with the law (as well as its effects on the health of family members), the pacing isn’t always tight; the stresses of making bail and retaining a lawyer and digging through calendars to unearth alibis intermittently diminishes the unease.

Yet the transition from imprisonment to sleuthing brings new curiosities, involving potential witnesses, odd coincidences (bad luck), the increasing costs of counsel, the general disinterest from prosecutors who believe their evidence is overwhelming, the potential for a mistrial, and psychological breaks – each imparting additional lulls that occasionally digress from the central case. Whether Manny is found innocent or guilty, the damage is done; he cannot emerge unscathed from the indictment, even if the whole thing was dismissed. The film reminds of “Call Northside 777” for the troubles with eyewitnesses and the legal process, and an updated version of “I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” for the vexation about imprisonment and the morbid finale that reinforces the notion that innocence doesn’t reverse the hardships of the experience.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10