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Case Number 05799

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The Wrong Man

Warner Bros. // 1956 // 105 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge George Hatch (Retired) // December 14th, 2004

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All Rise...

The wrong arm of the law is handcuffed and exposed in this depiction of a real-life situation gone bad. It's not one of Hitchcock's usual suspects, but Judge George Hatch says it should definitely be included in the great director's lineup.

The Charge

"Although Hitchcock always insisted he made The Wrong Man because it was 'the available project,' it was precisely the material he'd been after for some time…[and] now he wanted to sink his teeth into neorealism. The Wrong Man offered him an incident that he could develop into a documentary-style 'snapshot of life real-life'…and would also enable him to continue his lifelong critique of the judicial system."—Patrick McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light

"An innocent man has nothing to fear."—movie tagline

Opening Statement

The Wrong Man is bracketed by several of Alfred Hitchcock's more critical and commercial successes, including To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959). Hitchcock strove to make films that would have audience appeal while challenging people's perception—and enhancing the illusion—of cinematic entertainment. As early as 1948, he was daring enough to experiment with long, unbroken takes in Rope. In 1954, he attempted to impose his personal vision on the 3-D phenomenon that was sweeping the country with Dial M for Murder. Alas, that cinematic craze had quickly become passé during post-production, so the film was released as a standard presentation.

By the mid-1950s, neorealistic imports, like Rossellini's Open City (1945), along with Vittorio De Sica's Shoeshine (1946) and The Bicycle Thief (1948) began to generate interest and controversy in America. The raw power of these films had attracted enough attention to turn dilapidated old movie theaters and coffeehouse basements into "art houses," often screening these films in 16mm format. Several Hollywood directors quickly tapped into the trend, including Fred Zinnemann with The Search in 1948. It starred the relatively unknown Montgomery Clift in his second film, and a supporting cast of foreign professional and non-professional actors. The film was shot in stark black and white, on location in the devastated ruins of post-WWII Munich. The story involved a mother's search for her war-orphaned son who has been taken under the protective wing of an American GI.

Honestly, I don't see The Wrong Man as being successfully neorealistic, but to call it a simple docudrama would disparage both the film and the director. A decade later, in a lengthy director-to-director interview (published in 1966 by Simon and Schuster as Hitchcock / Truffaut), Hitchcock himself claimed the film should be "filed under indifferent Hitchcocks…[and] I don't feel that strongly about it." Perhaps he was trying to downplay the film's initial failure at the box office. Audiences were turned off because The Wrong Man took a bleak, despairing, and unsparing look at life from an Everyman's point of view, and it ended on a decidedly downbeat note. Critics, too, were nonplussed, obviously expecting something lighter from "The Master of Suspense," who had always provided some comic relief "on the side." You won't find any sly inside jokes or black humor in this film. It's all grimly realistic, but neorealism is the point in question.

Facts of the Case

Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is a hardworking bass player at the Stork Club. He wants only to provide for his wife, Rose (Vera Miles), and their two sons. Rose has been suffering with four impacted wisdom teeth, but "they're not as painful as the price" of having them removed. Because Manny earns only $85 a week, money is tight. He goes to the bank, hoping to make a loan against Rose's life insurance policy. The tellers immediately "identify" him as the man who had robbed their bank twice—the same man responsible for a string of holdups over the past year. As evidence mounts, Manny is arrested and run through the prison system, from interrogation and fingerprinting, to booking and a humiliating strip search—ultimately, to a jail cell.

After relatives post the $7,500 bail, Manny and Rose hire Frank O'Connor (Anthony Quayle) to act as their defense attorney for the upcoming trial. O'Connor believes in Manny's innocence, but advises the couple, "I have little experience in criminal cases, and shall be at a disadvantage with a skillful prosecutor." He suggests that the Balestreros find proof-positive alibis for their whereabouts during all of the robberies Manny has been accused of committing. Although everyone, including the staff at the Stork Club, supports Manny, the arrest and all the ensuing events gradually become overwhelming for Rose. She becomes withdrawn and depressed, and her emotional stability soon disintegrates. This incident has taken its toll on Rose, the Balestreros' marriage, and the "wrong man."

The Evidence

Roberto Rossellini's longtime collaborator, Cesare Zavattini, described neorealism as "the stripping away of all expressionism with a total absence of montage effects…[and] to just make a ninety-minute film of life." In The Wrong Man, Hitchcock uses enough German expressionism to qualify it as film noir. (In fact, the picture has a full listing in Silver and Ward's Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style.) There are dissolves and blackouts to denote the passage of time, and at the end, there is a lengthy superimposition of two images. Fonda's face is in extreme close-up as he prays to a picture of Christ with a bleeding heart. What starts out as another dissolve to a longshot—that of a man walking toward the camera—stops midway. The man looms larger and larger until his face, too, is the same size as Fonda's, and we can see the startling resemblance Manny has with the "right man."

In the DVD's documentary feature, Guilt Trip: Hitchcock and The Wrong Man, art director Paul Sylbert reveals that only interiors of the Stork Club and outdoor scenes were filmed in New York City. Everything else was either shot on a Hollywood sound stage or in front of back-lot "vamps" of New York buildings, including the front of the police station and the Balestreros' house. Sylbert says Hitchcock wanted him specifically because he had been schooled in the Kazan style of realism, and he could recreate the kind of atmosphere the director wanted.

This meticulous attention to detail is evident in every frame. One especially impressive scene between the Balestreros and O'Connor takes place in a diner with a "New York" skyline behind them, pictured through a plate glass window. Hitchcock went so far as to overlap the sound of a subway crossing on the elevated train overhead, and have the el's "lights" flicker across the actors.

Sylbert exposes some of the other Hitchcockian tricks employed throughout the film. When the jail door slams in front of Manny, the camera zooms through a small "eye slot" so we can see him in his cell. Such a scene would require a wide-angle lens, but that would distort the image. Sylbert devised a cell that was only five feet long, instead of nine, and Fonda took very short steps as he paced to the barred window in front of him. Similarly, the front door of the Balestreros' home was actually a larger set of sliding doors. As Manny opens and enters, the crew pulled the set away, allowing the camera to follow him inside as he walks down a long hallway.

All of these illusions are visually striking, and do indeed keep the viewer apprehensive and glued to the screen. But this kind of Hitchcockery makes The Wrong Man more expressionistic rather than neorealistic. It's a far cry from the genuine rubble and bombed-out structures in Zinnemann's The Search.

Hitchcock chose to delete his usual cameo appearance (a still of which can be seen in Guilt Trip), because he felt it would be too distracting for the audience. He replaced it with a noirishly lit introduction, advising, "This is a true story, every word of it, and yet it contains elements that are stranger than all of the fiction that has gone into many of the thrillers I've made before." I may be nitpicking here, but "every word of it" is really pushing the envelope. The screenplay by Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail was based on an article published in Life magazine in 1953. And while Hitchcock's New York crew interviewed as many people as possible connected with the real story and relayed the detail, Anderson and MacPhail had to interpret this information and develop the kind of concise dialogue Hitchcock required. In The Three Faces of Eve, Alistair Cooke made a similar introduction, but was able to confirm that "much of the dialogue was taken from actual clinical records." The Wrong Man can't make that same "every word is true" statement.

The script is a paradigm of economy, but the conversations are imagined and construed to fit Hitchcock's basic premise. The same can be said of any number of films adapted from fiction and nonfiction sources. Having already mentioned Elia Kazan, I'll cite his directorial debut, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), based on Betty Field's autobiographical novel. Incidents and scenery were realistically recreated, but the screenwriters made up the dialogue. The Wrong Man falls into this same category: realistic, but not neorealistic.

Lastly, the film ends with a close-up of the near-comatose Rose, and a troubled Manny realizing the true cost of being identified as the "wrong man." In true Hollywood style, however, this depressing scene dissolves into a longshot of a sunny street, and the audience is advised: "Two years later, Rose made a complete recovery, and is living in Florida with Manny and their boys." In other words, they all lived happily ever after. But in 1966, Hitchcock told Truffaut, "I think she's probably still there."

Hitchcock couldn't have made a better choice than Henry Fonda (Twelve Angry Men) to play the role of Manny Balestrero—he has that Everyman image. And, as Peter Bogdanovich points out in guilt trip, "Fonda is one of the few actors who could get away with a performance like this because his own persona doesn't overpower the real person he was playing." In the first 45 minutes of the film, we watch Fonda transform Manny from a loving husband and father to a cautiously bewildered, but cooperative, suspect in a case he knows nothing about. Anxiety mounts when the owners of a deli and a liquor store further identify him, and when the coincidental misspelling of the word "drawer" as "draw" seals his fate. Manny is in a total daze as he's processed through the judicial system, handcuffed, and sent to jail. Locked in a cell, the real frustration—and the sudden horror—of his situation hits him full force. With a minimum amount of dialogue, Henry Fonda conveys all of these emotions through his eyes and facial expressions.

During this whole ordeal, Manny's only thought has been to call his worried wife, Rose. He's told, "That's already been taken care of." Well, it hasn't. Rose has been making panicked calls to relatives trying to track Manny's whereabouts. When her brother-in-law receives a call advising that Manny is incarcerated, Rose's first response is, "I knew it was something like that…a hospital…or jail." This is the start of her breakdown. Brilliantly portrayed by Vera Miles (Psycho), Rose gradually succumbs to circumstances beyond her control. When the Balestreros' alibi witnesses turn up dead or missing, she becomes hysterical. During a progress report, attorney O'Connor notices the radically detached change in Rose's personality, and suggests that Manny should consult a psychiatrist. Rose has transferred Manny's unsubstantiated guilt into her own failure as a wife and mother: "Manny shouldn't have gone to the bank that day. It was only because of me. We've been in debt because I didn't know how to economize and handle things. The truth is, I let you down, Manny. I haven't been a good wife."

Rose sinks further into paranoia and dementia. Manny gently says "The last few days, you haven't seemed to care about what will happen at the trial." Rose's melancholy reply is, "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." Manny reluctantly agrees to send Rose to a sanitarium. Later, he's overjoyed by the declaration of a mistrial—he tries to tell Rose that he's been exonerated because the real robber has been apprehended. Rose says, "That's fine for you," and stares off into that "frightening landscape" described by the psychiatrist as "the dark side of the moon, where she's buried under a landslide of fear and guilt."

Vera Miles is extraordinary as Rose. She endures the daily physical pain of her dental problems, but simply dismisses them in front of Manny so as not to burden him with any additional worries or financial responsibilities. Miles's Rose is also the perfect wife and mother, but the accusations against her husband prompt self-accusatory doubt and fear. Her descent into madness—from the efficient and beautiful, puffy-cheeked housewife, to the distraught and unhinged, hollow-eyed fragment of her former self—is one cinema's most overlooked performances.

As defense attorney Frank O'Connor, Anthony Quayle (Lawrence of Arabia) delivers solid backup, offering the Balestreros legal and moral support. Quayle makes apparent O'Connor's sincere dedication to the case by admitting his lack of experience in "criminal cases," and waves off their concern about his legal fee in order to "concentrate on Manny's innocence." The rest of the cast includes familiar screen and television actors, none of whom were connected with any identifiable roles, leaving them anonymous faces as Hitchcock intended. A few real victims of the original holdups reprise their "roles" for added authenticity.

For The Wrong Man, Hitchcock recruited a crew of regular and reliable technicians. Robert Burks was the director's "official" cinematographer for 11 films, from Strangers on a Train (1951) through Marnie (1964). Burks neatly captures the drab home life of the Balestreros, then offsets it by using stark, high-contrasted blacks and whites to detail the horrific circumstances of Manny's personal Hell. With relatively little dialogue during these scenes, Burks's close-ups of Fonda's face show us the confusion and mental anguish Manny is going through. Hitchcock focused the second half of the film on Rose, so Burks shifted gears to bleaker tones, utilizing subtly defined grays to match Rose's disheartened and despairing outlook on life. Burks has a keen eye for composition, and it is only slightly compromised by Warner's top-cropping of the film, which I shall get to shortly.

Bernard Herrmann (The Trouble with Harry) scored seven of Hitchcock's films, including the haunting themes in Vertigo (1958). In Guilt Trip, Christopher Husted, the manager of Herrmann's estate, points out that the scenes of Manny's imprisonment are complemented by Herrmann's "sharp, insistent—even irritating—muted trumpets…sounds that sting, much the way Manny feels the 'sting' of being pursued and arrested for reasons unknown." Herrmann also opted for a less intrusive and more "lyrical" theme for the Balestreros' home life. A surprising tidbit of information came to me from a member of the Bernard Hermann Society: "The title cue that segues into the opening scene in the Stork Club is the only known example of Herrmann dance music." This is the same up-tempo music that is played during the menu options, and it is must-hear for Herrmann enthusiasts.

George Tomasini edited nine of Hitchcock's films, including Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960). He does an excellent job of condensing the director's schematic vision of this real life incident into a tight 105 minutes. In one of the film's most powerful scenes, Rose angrily hits Manny on the forehead with a hairbrush. Suddenly realizing what's she's done, she quickly pulls it away and smashes a mirror, and we're left with an off-kilter, bisected reflection of Manny's awestruck expression. His outside world has already been completely shattered, and now this image represents how Rose has severed their relationship so she can detach herself and assume the blame for Manny's nightmarish predicament. I watched this scene frame by frame using the stop/advance option on my remote. Tomasini's razor-sharp editing conveys more emotional impact in just a few seconds than other films requiring five minutes or more for the same effect.

Warner's DVD transfer has been horizontally cropped from the original 1:66:1 to 1.78:1, thus allowing for 16x9 screen enhancement. You can clearly see this for yourself by comparing the scene in which Manny is shouldered between two detectives in the backseat of a police car. In this DVD presentation, Manny's fedora is cut off at the top. When the same scene is shown pan-and-scan full-screen in the extra, Guilt Trip, Manny's entire hat is visible, as well as some additional space overhead.

The feature's grayscale is nicely contrasted with deep blacks and bright whites. Even with the remastering, speckles and scratches are still apparent; at one point, during a conversation between Manny and O'Connor, there is an awkward jump, as if a few frames have been lost. Overall, however, it's a more than decent transfer. The Dolby Mono sounds fine, so both the dialogue and Bernard Herrmann's score are crisp and clear.

The 20-minute "making-of" documentary, Guilt Trip: Hitchcock and The Wrong Man, is all too short, with the most interesting and revelatory comments coming from Paul Sylbert and Christopher Husted. It's a shame these two didn't provide a running commentary. The ever-present Peter Bogdanovich reprises the tale of Hitchcock's father having his son imprisoned for five minutes at an early age, instilling the director's fear of police. Film historian Richard Schickel claims The Wrong Man is the director's most "religious" film, so I assume he hasn't recently reevaluated I Confess. While being booked, Manny is allowed to keep his rosary beads. They are seen again when he holds them underneath the defense table. His mother tells him to "pray for strength," and Manny does so, to the picture of Christ. That's it. In I Confess, however, religious iconography is a rampant motif throughout the film.

The original theatrical trailer is also included, with an expanded version of Hitchcock's unique introduction.

Closing Statement

As a film, The Wrong Man may itself be a case of mistaken identity. Don't expect another To Catch a Thief or Rear Window. This is Hitchcock's most serious and—dare I say it—most personal film, right alongside Vertigo. It may fail as an attempt at neorealism simply because the director is too much of a perfectionist and control freak to allow for any lapses that may intrude upon his vision and version of a true-to-life event. But like Stage Fright (1950), The Wrong Man is another one of Hitchcock's most ignored and underrated classics.

The Verdict

Not guilty! No mistrial here. The Wrong Man is free to go into as many DVD players as possible.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 85
Audio: 90
Extras: 30
Acting: 100
Story: 100
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1956
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Classic
• Crime
• Drama
• Film Noir

Distinguishing Marks

• Making-of Documentary: Guilt Trip: Hitchcock and The Wrong Man
• Original Theatrical Trailer

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