“An innocent man has nothing to fear, remember that.”
Alfred Hitchcock was nothing if not a dramatist. He loved taking trivial settings and inundating them with so much tension that something as trivial as delivering a glass of milk or watching a neighbor could be a matter of life or death. He was, after all, the “Master of Suspense.” What then, becomes of Hitchcock when he’s forced to tone down his exaggerated tendencies and tell a true story? The answer can be found in The Wrong Man (1956).
The Wrong Man is an outlier in so many ways. It’s the only Hitchcock film directly based on true events (others took real-life inspiration), the only one to eschew traditional set pieces, and the only one that sees the director’s trademark “mistaken identity” schtick explored to its grimmest and most logical conclusion. The Wrong Man is a devastating viewing experience when stacked against the cheeky thrills of North by Northwest (1959) or the drawing room intrigue of Dial ‘M’ for Murder (1954), and much of it comes down to its film noir ethos.
Hitchcock and noir ran adjacently for the 1940s and 50s. They only occasionally overlapped, and when they did, a la Shadow of a Doubt (1943) or Strangers on a Train (1951), they still gave audiences a vicarious jolt. They may have had the window dressing of film noir, but they were thrillers at heart. The Wrong Man bucked this trend. It was Hitchcock embracing the unremittingly bleak, and it holds up remarkably well for being one of his less-celebrated releases.
The film revolves around Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), a jazz musician who never quite hit the big time. He carves out a meager living at the Stork Club in New York, but he still needs an influx of cash if he’s going to help his wife Rose (Vera Miles) pay for a dental procedure. He visits an insurance company with the hopes of finessing a deal, but while there, he gets identified as the man who robbed the company twice before. He’s taken into custody by the end of the night.
Manny’s arrest is among the most terrifying sequences in Hitchcock’s entire career. There are no stabbings or sudden bird attacks, but the depiction of his booking, fingerprinting, and subsequent incarceration is so unflinching that it borders on cruelty. We’re forced to sit and watch as Manny (and Fonda, one of our most beloved American actors) is treated like a common hood, even though we know he’s innocent. It’s maddening, and the film knows it.
Fonda is mesmerizing in what turned out to be his only Hitchcock collaboration. He radiates a put-upon decency from the moment he enters the frame, and the quiet dignity he musters despite being forced to suffer countless indignities is something that cannot be taught. Take, for example, the moment he gets handcuffed. While it could’ve easily been played up for dramatic effect, and used as a springboard for a Brando-esque breakdown, Fonda prefers to keep things subdued. He simply looks down at his shackled wrists, letting the sadness in his eyes communicate what we already know to be true.
Another standout moment is when Manny is placed behind bars. Hitchcock’s camera launches through the slot in the jail cell, and what we find on the other end is a man who chooses to turn his back to us. We see a slight head tilt, then a head slumped in defeat. There’s a sense of moral humiliation that runs throughout Fonda’s performance, and it’s what makes The Wrong Man simultaneously powerful yet difficult to watch.
Hitchcock may have seemed an odd choice to tackle the material, which was adapted from the Maxwell Anderson novel The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero, but in truth, he had been dying to tell this story his entire life. Hitch’s upbringing came with a crippling fear of the police, which many attributed to the night his father chose to punish him by sending him to jail for the night. The police are not demonized in The Wrong Man, but they are seen as intimidating forces who wield power far more callously than they ought to. Manny’s wife is pushed to the brink of sanity and then some over the course of the film, and the police do little to quell her concerns, or even suggest that Manny may be innocent.
The aesthetic choices support this unflinching outlook. The lush color palette that had adorned Hitchcock’s previous films is replaced with high contrast black-and-white. The elaborate crane shots are ditched for a gritty, documentary-style approach that made the whole thing feel like an A-list newsreel. Then there’s the jazz-tinged score by Bernard Herrmann. The composer was Hitchcock’s most important collaborator during his most fruitful period, and while The Wrong Man may not reach the highs of his other Hitch scores, Herrmann gives the film exactly what it needs.
I’m not going to pretend that The Wrong Man is Hitchcock’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker, or that it will top anybody’s list when it comes to listing his masterpieces, but there’s something to be said for the fact that it would be considered a minor classic were it made by any other filmmaker. The Wrong Man is creatively elevated by Hitchcock’s involvement, but commercially compromised because fans will always go into it expecting something slick and entertaining.
It’s left turns like these that would eventually allow Hitchcock to hit pay dirt with Psycho (1960), a film that not only recycled The Wrong Man’s casting of Vera Miles but the black-and-white cinematography and moral indifference. It’s well worth revisiting on its own as the most overt film noir in the director’s entire career.
TRIVIA: The Wrong Man boasts early, uncredited appearances by actors Tuesday Weld and Harry Dean Stanton.
Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.