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THE WRONG MAN

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Henry Fonda, Vera Miles, Anthony Quayle
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Audio: English, French
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Black & white, matted widescreen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Making-of documentary, trailer
Length: 105 minutes
Release Date: September 7, 2004

"Don't you see I'm just trying to tell the truth?"

Film *** ˝

As most Hitchcock fans know, one of the Master of Suspense's favorite themes was that of an innocent man being pursued for a crime he did not commit.  From Hitchcock's earliest films, such as The 39 Steps, to some of his final classics, like North by Northwest, the director returned again and again to this theme, continually exploring different approaches which would challenge the master director's ability to find new ways of telling a familiar tale.  In The Wrong Man (1956), Hitchcock used a true-life story as the basis for his film, the first time in his career he had done so.

The Wrong Man is a tale of a musician, Christopher Emanuel "Manny" Balestrero (compassionately portrayed by Henry Fonda), wrongly accused of a series of neighborhood robberies.  Manny is the Hitchcockian Average Joe, an innocent victim of unjust persecution.  He works a bassist at the Stork Club (an actual New York City jazz club), but after January 1953, his life will change forever.

On one fateful day in January, Manny goes to a local insurance company to inquire about a possible loan to help pay for his wife's dental surgery.  Unbeknownst to him, Manny closely resembles a burglar who has just recently robbed that very same office.  Discreet calls are soon made to the police, and when more witnesses around the neighborhood begin to erroneously identify Manny as the culprit behind other recent robberies, chaos and disarray soon descend upon this mild man's life.

Manny is questioned by the police, arrested, and ultimately thrown into jail.  His loyal and loving wife Rose (Vera Miles) helps to arrange for his bail, an expense the couple can hardly afford.  Rose at first stands by his side and even helps Manny to locate witnesses who might be able to support his alibi and prove his innocence.  However, the constant stress and worries over the upcoming trial eventually prove to be too much for Rose, and she finally breaks down.

As Rose, Vera Miles offers one of the strongest performances of her career.  She had originally been cast to work with Hitchcock in Vertigo (her role was later filled by Kim Novak when Miles became pregnant).  By the time of pre-production for The Wrong Man, Vera Miles was again available, and was subsequently cast in this film.

Henry Fonda also offers a strong performance as Manny.  He is the Everyman, an unassuming citizen just going about his daily routines.  He is a kind father, a dedicated husband, and a good son.  Fonda's Manny is so easily identifiable to audiences that we empathize deeply with him; his subsequent persecution becomes frustrating at times to watch impassively, for we the audience are alone in our knowledge of his true innocence.  As the scales of justice tip against him and the false accusations rain upon Manny, we feel the pain and internal torment of this innocent man.  The weight of such pressure threatens to collapse our resolve as much at it does Rose's, so torn is she between her own need to remain by Manny's side and her lingering, guilty doubts about his innocence.  In real life, the wife was indeed institutionalized, and Hitchcock's deft direction allows us to vicariously feel the pressures which might have driven her (and likewise, us) insane.

Early on, Hitchcock quickly recognized the heavy tone which would pervade over the film.  The Wrong Man is a dark film with essentially no light moments to relieve tension.  Hitchcock even decided to forgo his usual cameo appearance (appearing instead briefly in silhouette before the opening credits to introduce the film) so as not to distract audiences from the film's drama realism.

To further establish this realism, Hitchcock utilized many real New York City locales, including the actual Stork Club and the streets of New York City neighborhoods.  The film, frequently documentary-like in tone, was perhaps Hitchcock's response to the European cinéma vérité in vogue at the time.

More than any other Hitchcock film, The Wrong Man can be considered a companion piece to the director's own I Confess.  Both are somber dramas and represent a more serious side of the director during the 1950's.  The main protagonists in both films turn to Catholicism for faith and guidance.  Manny is a spiritual man, and after his arrest, we see him with his rosary, increasingly his only source of solace.  During the inevitable trial, Manny keeps the rosary well in hand.  Late in the film, a portrait of the Christ also appears prominently during a key scene.  Ultimately, Hitchcock's direction suggests that Manny's faith, and the prayers which he offers not for himself but for his wife and family, are what truly save him, for is not long after one prayer session, the true culprit to the neighborhood crimes is captured.

The Wrong Man is a sad and grim film without light-hearted frivolity.  To call it fun entertainment would not be accurate, although the film, directed with great restraint, is a wonderful example of Hitchcock peerless skills as a director.  His only concession to brightening the film occurs at the very end after a poignant sanitarium scene.  The perfect ending would have been of Fonda's Manny walking slowly away down a dark hallway corridor, but the finale adds on a brief note explaining how everything turned out okay in real life a few years later.  Although this short (but true) epilogue provides an optimistic spin to the conclusion of the film, it somewhat cheapens the shattering emotional resonance of the final scene in The Wrong Man between Manny and Rose.  Imagine Vertigo with a happy ending.  Still, this is only a small misstep in an otherwise superb effort from Hitchcock.

Ultimately, the identity of the neighborhood robber is irrelevant (a classic Hitchcock MacGuffin).  Although his eventual capture brings a close to Manny's indictment proceedings, the aftermath of the entire judiciary process upon Manny's personal life - a torn family, a wife driven insane - lingers on.  Even Manny's accusers, after being confronted with the real robber, cannot bring themselves to face or apologize to Manny.  Justice, though served, is incomplete and in essence cannot truly alleviate the harm already inflicted upon Manny's family life.  These consequences of the wrongful accusation are at the true devastating core of the film.

The Wrong Man does not condemn the American legal system.  It does, however, illustrate that no system is perfect, that occasionally, if tragically, the innocent may become caught helplessly in the machineries of justice.  If that should happen, then he must trust either in himself or in the system to work (as it does ultimately in The Wrong Man).

Video ***

The Wrong Man is shown in a matted format that preserves the original widescreen aspect ratio.  The video quality of the transfer is superb with deep black levels and excellent clarity.  Some instances of scratch marks are present, but there is nothing that really distracts from the viewing.  All in all, The Wrong Man is a good example of a solid transfer of a vintage black & white film to DVD.

Audio ** ˝

The Wrong Man offers the original English monaural track or an alternate French track.  Both are quite adequate with a clean audio quality, though neither will not overtax your sound system.  This film was coincidentally scored by Bernard Herrmann, who also wrote the music for some of Hitchcock's most famous films, including Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho.

Features * ˝

The featurette Guilt Trip: Hitchcock and the Wrong Man (20 min.) relates many anecdotes about the director from childhood experiences to amusing incidents on his sets.  One particular tale recalls how a young five-year-old Hitchcock was made to stay in a jail cell by his father to impress upon him the error and evil of crime; it was an experience which haunted the director throughout his life and whose resonance can be felt in many of his films, particularly in those that deal with the Hitchcockian theme of mistaken identity.  Other anecdotes are more light-hearted, such as Hitchcock's impatience with Method actors searching for character motivation for their on-screen actions; Hitchcock's reply to these actors was, "The motivation is - you're getting paid."

The featurette also comments on Vera Miles, one of Hitchcock's favorite actresses (and also a favorite of John Ford's).  She provides a brilliant performance as Rose in The Wrong Man, and Rose's descent from loving loyalty into isolated insanity paints a terrible image of one of the film's central themes - what can happen to the innocent when the people they love are wrongly accused.

The only other bonus on the DVD is a vintage trailer, narrated by Hitchcock himself.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Real-life Balestrero case witnesses were cast in small roles throughout The Wrong Man!

Summary:

Arguably the darkest and most serious of Hitchcock's films, The Wrong Man nevertheless finds the master director on familiar grounds, championing an average man in his struggles to prove his innocence of a crime.  Henry Fonda and Vera Miles both give outstanding performances, and Hitchcock is in top form in this classic drama.

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