This month has been an interesting trip down memory line dissecting some of my favorite Hitchcock films. While I’m guessing most readers of this blog have seen Hitchcock staples such as Notorious, Psycho, Strangers on a Train, etc., bet not many have seen my selection for this week. While it has been overlooked in the director’s impressive body of work, it is definitely worth checking out. It’s The Wrong Man from 1956. It’s not a psychological thriller, a horror film, a spy thriller, or even a dark comedy Those are all types of films we often associate with the master of suspense. But The Wrong Man is a docudrama starring Henry Fonda. But don’t let the documentary style of this film put you off. It’s every bit as impressive as Hitchcock’s other masterpieces and showcases him as not just a successful mainstream director, but an artist who time and again takes risks.
Let’s cut to the chase (pun intended) and get the plot out of the way.
Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is a string bassist, a devoted husband and father, and a practicing Catholic. He makes a modest salary playing in the jazz combo at the Stork Club. It’s barely enough to make ends meet. Finances become a little more difficult with the major dental bills his wife Rose (Vera Miles) incurs. Manny decides to see if he can borrow off of Rose’s life insurance policy. But when he enters the insurance office, he is identified by some of the clerks as the man who held up the office twice a few months earlier. Manny cooperates with the police as he has nothing to hide. Manny learns that he is a suspect in not only those hold ups, but a series of other hold ups in the same Jackson Heights neighborhood in New York City where they live. The more that Manny cooperates, the more guilty he appears to the police. With the help of Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle), the attorney that they hire, they try to prove Manny’s innocence.–IMDB
Again we have the familiar Hitchcock motif of an ordinary person put in extraordinary circumstances. There’s also the common motif of a case of mistaken identity (Cary Grant’s character in North By Northwest is another great example of this). While The Wrong Man contains some familiar Hitchcock film elements, it’s anything but a typical Hitchcock film. What it proves is that Hitchcock can take as mundane of a setup as a police procedural and make it absolutely compelling. Let me explain why.
First of all, the casting of Henry Fonda is a stroke of genius. Like Jimmy Stewart, another Hitchcock film regular, Fonda is totally sympathetic and believable as a dogged every man. We believe Manny’s plight and root for him because he feels like a person we all know. The relatability factor is part of what keeps us coming back to Hitchcock’s movies. When the audience can easily set foot in the shoes of the protagonist, the film is already off to a good start. And in The Wrong Man, as usual, Fonda delivers a brilliant performance.
Another reason the film works is the overall look of the film. It was filmed in glorious black and white by Robert Burks. The lighting and framing give the film a stark, gritty realism that is perfect for the material. It has the feel of a great film noir docudrama. Think of The Phenix City Story from 1955, and you get an idea of what I’m talking about. One of the best looking scenes in the film is when Manny is taken to prison. Fun fact: it was filmed in an actual prison. Burks would work with Hitchcock on multiple occasions. His Technicolor work on Rear Window is absolutely exquisite.
There’s also the contribution of frequent collaborator Bernard Herrmann. Like the cinematography of Burks, Herrmann’s music gives us the feeling that everything in the film is really happening. It isn’t as showy as Herrmann’s work on Psycho or Vertigo, and that’s exactly the right call. It would take us out of the action.
I don’t want to reveal all the twists and turns of the plot. That would spoil the fun. I’m guessing many people reading this will be first time viewers. Let me just say this: you will never be bored. The story is brilliantly constructed. It was even based loosely on the true story. The Wrong Man is brilliant because of the performances of the actors, especially Henry Fonda and Vera Miles. In the hands of almost any other director, this would have been a by the numbers crime drama. But Hitchcock makes the typically mundane unfold in a way that is absolutely spellbinding.