When I was a kid, I remember on occasion being told–as I protested some punishment or another–that even if I wasn’t guilty of the exact grievance for which I was being disciplined, that my punishment no doubt made up for all those times that I was guilty and wasn’t punished. I remember school teachers and perhaps my parents using this line of reasoning, one that is particularly good at provoking existential worries in ten-year-olds.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), released this week on DVD, adopts this argument as its rasion d’Ítre and unnervingly suggests that its protagonist, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), may be ultimately guilty of something even if he is innocent of the crime of which he is charged. For a director known for his Catholic subtexts, the film powerfully illustrates the perception of ultimate human imperfection and the way that conviction can well up and mysteriously glide from person to person. In the 1950’s, the Cahiers du CinÈma critics were fascinated with the transference of guilt throughout Hitchcock’s work, and in their pioneering 1957 book on the fimmaker, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol trumpeted The Wrong Man as “a film that not only brings together the themes scattered throughout his work but also eloquently proves that the attempt to illuminate the depths of his work was worth the effort.”
If The Wrong Man has suffered from a less popular connection with audiences than Hitchcock’s other films of the same period like Rear Window, North By Northwest, or Psycho, it’s no doubt largely due to its unique, understated tone. Based on a true story, Hitchcock eschews his typical humor and glamor and wrings an unusually austere, restrained cinematic experience. In many ways, it’s nearly Bressonian, a comparison strengthened by the fact that Fonda’s lean, hunted visage bears more than a passing resemblance to Martin LaSalle in Pickpocket (1959). A hint that Hitchcock took the film especially seriously is the fact that it’s his only film that doesn’t contain one of his trademark cameos; the director merely introduces the film, warning the viewer to expect something different:
“In the past, I have given you many kinds of suspense pictures. But this time I would like you to see a different one. The difference lies in the fact that this is a true story; every word of it. And yet it contains elements that are stranger than all the fiction that has gone into many of the thrillers I’ve made before.”
Balestrero is a struggling bass player in New York City with a wife and two sons. He appears straight-laced and honest and follows rigid structures in his life, arriving home at precisely the same time every night. As his mother–an unusually sympathetic maternal character for Hitchcock–describes him, “I used to worry sometimes [whenever he would be late coming home], but that’s just because he’s so steady, you never expect him to be late.”
Manny is unceremoniously arrested one night on his way home when the police suspect him of having robbed several stores in the neighborhood, and much of the film focuses on the police procedures and rituals Manny is forced to undergo. Riding in police cars, being handcuffed, accused, and charged, making statements, having statements recorded, being transferred to new locations, making more statements, etc., Manny experiences an endless series of routines that are at once invasively personal and coldly mechanical. Repeating his name and address becomes his mantra, a grab at identity in an indifferent universe.
Adopting a straightforward, almost documentary-like approach to these scenes, Hitchcock’s style paradoxically intensifies the story’s allegorical aspects. As Rohmer and Chabrol wrote:
“Like Lifeboat, it is a fable, but it is also the exact account of a real event reported in the newspapers. Can it only be a coincidence? This kind of apologue, often a pretext for mediocrity, is the very genre to which belong the most original recent films: A Man Escaped, Voyage to Italy, Mr. Arkadin, and ElÈna and Her Men. In addition, Bresson, Rossellini, Welles, and Renoir were as successful as Hitchcock in manipulating the seemingly contradictory strengths of the allegorical and the documentary forms . . . Concrete reality gives the story the flesh without which it would be only an intellectual exercise.”
One of the most striking features of the film is its nearly complete separation of protagonist and plot–Manny has virtually no affect on the narrative, and is merely the pawn of a seemingly predetermined chain of events, a completely isolated man without agency. Fonda’s almost ghostlike, subdued performance provides a character who has at some point been mysteriously shut out of the story. In order to compensate for his powerlessness, Manny’s family begins to take a more active role, and it is here that Hitchcock’s fascination with the transference of guilt takes place–latent feelings of inadequacy begin to rise and haunt Manny’s wife, played beautifully by Vera Miles, regardless of the resolution of Fonda’s plight. As she tragically begins a descent into near-madness, the details of Manny’s case, so powerfully emphasized throughout the film, become secondary to larger, metaphysical concerns about innocence, guilt, and judgment–“you know,” Manny says, “like somebody was stacking the cards against us.” And throughout, Bernard Herrmann’s pensive, minimalist score registers their deep-seated unease.
There’s also an admirable class consciousness in the film. Hitchcock intensifies the disparity between the posh nightclub Manny performs at and the working class milieu of his home, the surrounding neighborhood, and various police stations. Several conversations crop up between the police, Manny, and his wife about their financial status and their constant attention to fiscal organization as an ethical responsibility. It’s no accident that Manny’s wife blames his arrest on the fact that he was identified while trying to get a loan, and indirectly blames herself for their economic pressures, family debt, and middle class livelihood.
The Wrong Man is a taught and slow-boiling film that, like the best Hitchcock movies, frames important philosophical and psychological issues within a strikingly effective thriller. That it manages this with significant originality and stylistic ambition makes it a standout piece in Hitchcock’s oeuvre and a film that richly deserves its place among the filmmaker’s greatest works.