Thursday 10 March 2016

The Wrong Man (1956)

Den forkerte mand
Alfred Hitchcock has often been described as a one-trick pony in as far as he always made the same kind of movie. I would argue that that is a bit unfair, especially considering the range he presented in his early years, but it is true that there were certain themes that he found so interesting that he kept returning to them. When he did, however, he would usually find a new angle that would make a familiar theme fresh and so widen themes that by any right should have been exhausted after a few movies.

On of Hitchcock’s fascinations was the idea of a man caught in the wrong place and as a result get involved in dramatic event not of his doing. The movie “The Wrong Man” is so exactly this theme and it seems condemned to end up as a Hitchcock cliché flick, but then Hitchcock goes and does something that makes this movie entirely unique and different from any other Hitchcock movie I have seen. He applies a realism style to an extent to make it almost documentarian.

Readers of this blog will know that I have a soft spot for realism. In a fictional world it is easy to distance yourself from a story, but when things look real and authentic everything gets a lot closer and a lot more poignant. You can relate to people and they become alive. This is why “Roma, Citta Aperta” is a tough movie, why we love “Marty” and why Marlon Brando has such an impact in Kazan’s movies. But Hitchcock did not do method acting. For him it was entirely new to try his hands on realism. Maybe it was just an experiment, maybe just a new angle, but personally I think he struck gold and I regret he did not explore this vein more. “The Wrong Man” has a nerve few of his movies had, not just tension, but a pressing urgency that got deep under my skin. For this reason alone I would call “The Wrong Man” a high point in Hitchcock’s career, though I think it is normally rated as one of his lesser movies.

“The Wrong Man” is the real story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero (Henry Fonda), called “Manny”, a musician at a New York venue called “The Stork Club” who was wrongly accused of armed hold-ups actually committed by a man that looked similar enough to be his double.

“Manny” is in every way a decent fellow. He has a wife and two small children, earns just enough to get along and struggles with the same problems that most people have, but deals with them with integrity and humility. He does not gamble and save where he can, raising money the hard way. When Rose (Vera Miles), his wife, needs 300$ for dental treatment (a staggering sum in the early fifties!) Manny tries to raise money from Rose’s life insurance. At the insurance agency office the clerks are convinced (or rather convinces each other as these thing usually happen) that Manny is in fact the guy that twice help up and robbed the office.

Soon Manny experience the ride of his life as he is brought in by the police, interrogated and identified as the criminal. His reaction is dazed disbelief and it is obvious he is wondering wtf is going on. This may be the best, or worst, part of the movie as Fonda, the music and the photography conspire to make this a true nightmare. There is panic just beneath the surface and it is a wonder that Manny does not succumb to it.

His wife does though as Rose is overwhelmed by the feeling that the world is out to get them and she is somehow to blame. It gets so bad she has to be institutionalized and although the epilogue tells us that eventually she recovered it is a fine example of the human costs these accusations can have.

Manny is eventually cleared, but not through fine detective work or sophisticated legal acrobatics, but through sheer luck as the real culprit is apprehended by chance. Had he not Manny would have been convicted, his and his wife’s life and likely those of his boys ruined. All because some clerks worked themselves up into thinking he was the guy that robbed them.

Beside the nightmare of a fickle legal system there is a religious element as Manny eventually has nowhere else to look than to blind luck. He is lucky there in the end and may be convinced of divine intervention because it sure was not by design.

This is such a classic Hitchcock theme, but as I already stated the almost documentarian realism makes this an incredibly strong experience. Locations are authentic, the story is apparently very close to the real one and both Fonda and Miles were actors would cold play ordinary people. Add to that Hitchcock’s uncanny talent for staging and one of the best soundtracks Hitch ever used and you have a winner in my book.

Hitchcock probably was never darker than he was here and I deplore that. There was a hidden talent for dark realism that was sadly underused.    


  1. I really liked this too. Love Henry Fonda anyway, and his streak of everyman was well used here.

    The scenario portrayed here is a real nightmare for most people I think. You are right about the realism, it really serves the story well, though the cinematography was wonderfully shadowy and moody, and added a poetic feel to the whole thing.

    1. This was a movie that begged for black and white and lots of shadows. This was something Hitch excelled at very early, but I loved that he here combined it with realism.
      I have no idea how I would deal with being falsely accused. I know of people who got falsely accused of sexual assault and that was incredibly destructive. It was only when it turned out that the woman was a vengeful bitch who had used that trick repeatedly to get back at people that they were cleared, but at that time their lives were pretty much in pieces.

  2. I was worried I would find this film unbearably frustrating, but I actually enjoyed it. Did you see The Man Who Knew Too Much (either one)?

    1. Yeah, I reviewed it in February. I think I liked that one better than most people.
      With The Wrong Man I was worried it would be a total downer, but it actually works.

  3. I liked this and am looking forward to a rewatch. The difference between what Hitchcock did with a real Wrong Man vs. his many different fictional ones is striking. Funny that this is his only pairing with Fonda.

    1. Maybe he just preferred James Stewart as his everyman for his fictional stories.
      There is a lot to look forward to here.