Wednesday, October 13, 2010

An Innocent Man Has Nothing to Fear: Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956)

For as long as he can remember Manny Balestrero has been obsessed with mathematics. So much so that he views his entire existence as an equation and he holds everything in his life, from the beat he keeps with his band, to the way he plays the horses, to the time he arrives home to his wife and son as part of that very specific equation. A good man whose only real crime is always just seeming a step behind where he needs to be financially, Manny's life is irrevocably altered one night when he is accused of a serious crime that he swears up and down he is innocent of.

I’ve always considered Alfred Hitchcock’s unnerving real-life based 1956 film The Wrong Man to be one of his most truly terrifying. It’s also one of his most consistently brilliant, if often overlooked, works and it has lost none of its power to shock, frustrate and move the film fans that are able to fall under its spell all these years later. Lacking the overt visual audacity of works like Vertigo and North By Northwest, and the sheer entertainment value of To Catch a Thief and Rear Window, The Wrong Man is still a dazzling cinematic triumph that stands as one of Hitch’s harshest films in both style and substance.

Scripted (along with help from Angus MacPhail) by the great Maxwell Anderson, from his book The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel as well as a Herbert Brean article entitled “A Case of Identity”, The Wrong Man is one of the most direct and forceful films in Hitchcock’s canon. It must have seemed like a real out of nowhere moment for folks in the fifties expecting another Trouble with Harry or Dial M For Murder, as the bleak black and white The Wrong Man is a real about-face from those colorful breezy works. Stylistically and thematically, The Wrong Man seems like Hitchcock's tip of the hat to the Italian neo-realist works that had populated theaters throughout the fifties, and a prediction of The French New Wave that was getting ready to explode in the few years after its release.

Shot partially on location in upstate New York and in the heart of the city, along with some interior studio-based work, The Wrong Man is a bruising film from Hitchcock that has been called ‘documentary like’ but I see it as an extremely cinematic achievement filled with many, albeit deliberately muted, Hitchcockian trademarks that never let the viewer question just whose work it is they are watching. From the brooding Bernard Herrmann score (which has moments that predate Taxi Driver by a good twenty years) to Robert Burks’ beautiful but oppressive photography, The Wrong Man is far more than just the rare Hitchcockian docudrama many think of it as, and it deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as the man’s greatest achievements.

It’s mentioned on the excellent, if all too brief, featurette that accompanies The Wrong Man on DVD that the film is perhaps most surprising as it stands as one of Hitchcock’s most emotional works. What would have been a plodding courtroom drama in most hands is transformed into a real moving character study driven by Anderson and MacPhail’s incredibly smart script, Hitchcock’s legendary attention to detail and the wowing performances of Henry Fonda as the hapless Manny (a man whose real crime is that he fell victim to the conformity that haunted the fifties) and a smashing Vera Miles as his destroyed wife Rose. The Wrong Man steps away from where we think its going to go about halfway through and becomes an amazing, if quite devastating, story of a marriage nearly ripped apart by a case of mistaken identity.

I must say a special word for Vera Miles in this film. An always underestimated actress, Miles delivers a tour-de-force performance for Hitchcock in The Wrong Man and her role stands as one of the most memorable of the fifties. Fonda is terrific as well but Miles elevates the film to a heartbreaking greatness with her role as the guilt-ridden and doubtful Rose, and her work lingers for me days after viewing the film each time I sit down with it.

Probably about fifteen or so years ahead of its time, this paranoid classic would have felt right at home with works from the seventies like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, The Wrong Man failed to captivate too many folks upon its release in 1956 and it still hasn’t found the same kind of audience granted to other Hitchcock films from the period. It’s a haunting and singular work though dripping with style and substance that really does seem better and better with each passing year. If you haven’t seen it, or if it’s been awhile, seek it out immediately and you may find your order of favorite Hitchcock films forever altered.


JESCIE said...

inspiration for that last pointing poster? snatched straight from M

le0pard13 said...

I agree that this film, lacking the lavishness and entertainment values of those other Hitchcock classics, really is quite brilliant. And frightening. Great review, Thanks for this.

dfordoom said...

It's definitely a very neglected Hitchcock film. It lacks the glamour of his other 1950s movies but it's pure classic Hitchcock.

Tommy Salami said...

This is one of Hitch's most personal films. Because it isn't as twisted and artful as VERTIGO it gets overlooked, but it is Kafkaesque and terrifying, and ... true. It gets lumped with Saboteur, a similar film, but this one is superior.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks all for commenting on this piece (my first as a married man!). It's nice hearing from some other admirers of this often overlooked work from Hitch.