DVD Review Of The Wrong Man

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/30/07


  Alfred Hitchcock was the consummate Hollywood director, in that his films had high production values, big name stars, were immaculately composed and scored- usually by Bernard Herrmann, as in this film, yet they also tended to lack heart, or real human emotion. They were all basically plot-driven vehicles that usually had twist endings, that stretched the bounds of the reasonable. In a way he was the M. Night Shyamalan of his day, except that he was a far superior filmmaker in every way. Every so often, however, he would try his hand at a different style of film, like Mr. And Mrs. Smith, Jamaica Inn, and Under Capricorn.

  Perhaps his most successful such ‘oddball’ film was 1956’s black and white social realism film The Wrong Man, starring Henry Fonda, which was manifestly influenced by the spate of European films that indulged in the Neo-Realistic style of such masters as Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, and Roberto Rossellini, and based upon a real life case of mistaken identity in 1953 which nearly put an innocent man in prison. This film’s veracity was so important to Hitchcock that he did not dare make one of his comic cameo appearances within the film, rather we only see him opening the film on a dark soundstage, and in shadow, as he intones the setup. Yet, in a sense, the film is more of a classic film noir, based in reality, than a Neo-Realistic film, based in Hollywood, even as it is shorn of the usual Hitchcockian plot twists and MacGuffins. The film was penned by Angus MacPhail and playwright Maxwell Anderson, and was based upon Anderson’s non-fiction novel called The True Story Of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero, which preceded Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel In Cold Blood by a decade. It is a very good film, yet it never quite soars into greatness, for a number of manifest reasons.

  First off is that the film never probes deeply enough into the laziness, ennui, and corruption of the New York Police Department, which was all too eager to pin a series of crimes on the first suspect they stumbled upon. The film displays their bumbling idiocy in full, and while it is not the flat-out criminality that engulfs the officers of the later film Serpico, Hitchcock never seizes the dramatic opportunity to widen his film into an indictment of ‘the system’, which was so manifestly incompetent in this and so many other pre-Miranda Warning cases. Look at how ‘bad suspects’ were treated by the cops- played by Harold J. Stone and Charles Cooper: arrested without their rights being read or told of the crime they are accused of, not allowed to contact their family- who fear the worst, interviews conducted without written or taped records, witnesses subtly coerced into identifying the ‘real’ suspect in a lineup, and parading a suspect past witnesses in the stores, whose expectations and willingness to ‘help’ the law are exploited, etc. Then, later, when on trial, we learn the cops have outright lied, claiming Manny admitted he was in debt to bookies.

  The film also leaves threads dangling- such as Manny’s alibi of having a visibly swollen jaw the day of one of the robberies, and having a dentist who could verify this fact. Such a physical fact would easily be used by a good lawyer in his defense, but it would have likely ended the film’s drama right there. The film also suffers in the area of detailing the mental disconnect of Fonda’s onscreen wife, Rose- played by Vera Miles. Her break from reality is too convenient and didactic a tool to show off the suffering of an innocent, when clearly there were larger problems that Manny’s arrest only brought to a head. She even physically attacks him with a hairbrush, something that shows that there’s more to the character’s breakdown. When Manny asks Rose why she doesn’t seem to care anymore of his case or life, she replies, ‘Don’t you see? It doesn’t do any good to care. They’ve got it fixed against you. They’ll find you guilty, no matter what. But we’re not going to play into their hands anymore. You’re not going out. You’re not going to play at the club. And the boys aren’t going to school anymore. We’re going to lock the doors to the house and stay inside.’ Most frighteningly, even though delusional, is that she’s right, for had Manny not cooperated with the cops so willingly the case against him, purely circumstantial, and a bit laughable, would have been even far weaker. Lastly, the film ends too patly and abruptly, with a cleared Manny leaving his wife in a sanatorium, only to have the film’s epilogue tell us all worked out well in the end. One could argue, since Hitchcock starts the film with himself introducing the film as based on a true story, that- ala Ingmar Bergman’s 1960s experiments with the acknowledged artifice of film, the film has no obligation to play out realistically, and its end with a shot of the reunited and happy family walking as we read the epilogue is justified. But, it’s still too easy a deus ex machina ending.

  The film does hint at the sort of filmmaker Hitchcock might have become had he not had so much commercial success, and taken on weightier themes, using his technical experiments in artier ways. Underlying the film is the racism of the era when Italians were still considered less than ‘white’ in society. In a related vein, the film does have some other implausibility issues, such as Manny’s being housed in Manhattan although arrested in Queens, why Manny’s lawyer, Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle), has the Balestreros do his leg work in tracking down suspects, and even the idiotic cops being so stupid as to have the witnesses not be hidden. First they are walked past the suspects, then put into shadows, then trotted out right by the suspects. These flaws, each minor, are just too much, when added up, to allow the film to reach the greatness it could, and likely should have, had a more arts based European director helmed it.

  The theme of an innocent, wrongly accused of a crime, however, was not a new one in the Hitchcock canon, but this was his most head-on assault on the topic. Fonda plays Manny Balestrero, a thirty eight year old bass playing musician employed in New York’s famed Manhattan-based  The Stork nightclub (although Fonda was fifty-one during filming). He rides the subway back to his home in Jackson Heights, Queens, makes only eighty-five dollars a week, has the usual debts, and naïvely places phony bets on the ponies in his mind. Naturally, he is a devoted husband to Rose, and a good father to his two sons. When Rose needs to have dental surgery for impacted wisdom teeth, Manny goes to his insurance agency to borrow money against her policy. Hitchcock positions Fonda to look nasty and suspicious as he enters the office, to mirror the suspicions of the insurance workers who believe he is the same man who robbed them earlier, as well as some local stores in the neighborhood. The idea that any criminal would be so dumb does stretch the believability factor, yet Manny is so lackadaisical and sincere that how anyone could believe he had been the criminal come back to ‘the scene of the crime’ is silly.

  On his way home, Manny is arrested, identified by the shop owners and the insurance girls under circumstances so ridiculous that even the most ardent Right Wingers would cry foul. He is put in a makeshift lineup in the middle of a hallway as the witnesses trod right by him. He was also told to walk in and out of stores, with the people who need to identify him having already been told that he’s a suspect, thus raising their susceptibility to being influenced by expectations. Then, he’s told to dictate a copy of the robbery note in print, not cursive script, which most people would naturally write in. When he misspells the word drawer as draw, as did the real robber, the lazy cops feel they’ve all but solved the case. Manny is booked, and series of humiliating scenes where he is systematically deindividuated, denigrated, and dehumanized begins. He is let out on $7500 bail, when family, friends, and co-workers rally about him, but does find a lawyer who will believe in him. Yet, two of the three people who could provide an alibi for his whereabouts the day of the first robbery, when he and Rose vacationed at a hotel, turn out to have died in the interim. A third- a boxer, cannot be located. There is also the toothache angle that is not followed up on.

  There is then a rare Hitchcockian courtroom scene, but Hitchcock ends the scene with a mistrial, when one of the jurors acts out. Meanwhile, Rose inexplicably cracks. Has she always had problems? Does she feel that her inadequacies have driven Manny to crime? We do not know, and Hitchcock does not say- which is a wise choice. But, Vera Miles is simply not a strong enough actress to convey the emotional complexities needed for the depressed and paranoid character. It’s admirable for the film to not limit the family’s sufferings to Manny, but an actress with more psychological gravitas would have been better. As great a technical director as Hitchcock was one can only imagine how much more interesting a film this would have been in the hands of an Orson Welles, for its manifest Kafkan qualities.

  Despite his WASPish looks, however, Fonda pulls off his non-leading man role with aplomb and suitable bewilderment. The Roman Catholicism of Manny is also an odd addition to the film from the usually apolitical and areligious Hitchcock, so shots of Manny’s rosary beads when booked, and of his crucifix at his trial, stand out, as does a bravura sequence where, in despair, and after being told to pray by his mother, Manny looks at a painting of Jesus, we cut to his face, and then we dissolve to a shot of the real robber (Richard Robbins) walking down the street to rob another store. The robber’s face fills in the frame occupied by Manny’s. Another great moment comes earlier, when Manny is alone in his jail cell, and the camera starts rotating like a Ferris Wheel, but as we watch Manny, not from his perspective. Thus, we get the displacement of objectivity from a subjectively moving perspective.

  Robert Burks’ camerawork in this scene is outstanding, as it is two other scenes where, as we learn in the twenty minute long DVD featurette, Guilt Trip: Hitchcock And The Wrong Man, the film’s art director Paul Sylbert employed tricks. When the prison door closes behind Manny the camera follows him through the door’s eye slot. To do so the shot requires a wide-angle lens. That would widen a real jail cell though, so Hitchcock ordered a much smaller cell made, and had Fonda take smaller steps to effect the illusion. Also, in a shot where Manny returns to his home the front of the building slides away on tracks, so the camera can follow him in as he walks into his foyer. When he shuts the door behind him we see only his body move, as if the door is behind the lens. Hitchcock employed this exact same trick later, in The Birds. The featurette also interestingly suggests that Hitchcock was drawn to this real life tale because of a lifelong fear of police, stemming from a childhood incident at the age of five, when his father had him put in a jail cell for five minutes. It’s a bit of a stretch, but an interesting anecdote nonetheless, despite its veracity or not. The Warner Brothers DVD comes with no commentary though, and only the original trailer, but the film transfer is sterling. The blacks and whites are crisp although the original film has been horizontally cropped from the original 1:66:1 aspect ratio to 1.78:1, and this shows in a few scenes.

  For a film that has been called Hitchcock’s stab at Neo-Realism, a bit less artifice would have been more suited. The Wrong Man, however, is a very good film, even if it is clearly a flawed and second tier film of Hitchcock’s, despite its noble attempts at more. It’s not a thriller, but a character study- of Manny, Rose, and even the mores of mid-Twentieth Century New York City, with images that do not rhapsodize the city as in Woody Allen’s Manhattan does, but show the city as a sort of indifferent beast. Despite its flaws, The Wrong Man has good performances, technical kudos, and great touches that stick in the viewer’s mind long after it ends; such as the rote and unwavering way the female witnesses identify the real robber, then are ashamed to look at Manny as they leave, an early shot of Manny leaving The Stork Club, bracketed between two cops as he walks away, or his recalling the cop car in front of his house when he is let out on bail and sees an empty spot in the street. These are the things that show that a great artist, even when not at his best, is still better than most non-great artists at their best. And that’s the sort of claim for which no twist ending is needed.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]

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