The Wrong Man is another one of Hitchcock’s innocent man wrongly accused films, but he does this one a lot differently. For one thing, it’s based on a true story, and for another it’s not a movie where there’s a clear villain or fun chases and escapes. Hitchcock changes it up here by making a movie that’s a little more realistic, and I think the change works.
Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is a New York City musician and a family man. In the opening scenes we learn that he never drinks, seldom gambles, loves his family, and always comes home on time. His wife Rose (Vera Miles) has to get her wisdom teeth out, and the family is just barely scraping by so they don’t have the necessary three hundred dollars. To get it, Manny goes down to the life insurance office and sees if he can borrow against Rose’s insurance; they’ve already borrowed against his. When he gets there, the women working in the office seem to recognize him. That’s probably because he looks a lot like the guy that held them up a while ago.
The clerk tells Manny he has to come back with his wife to get the loan, and he goes home while the women call the police. Just as he’s getting to his door, the cops pick him up. The conduct of these cops is just another example of horrible police procedure seen in Hitchcock films, though it has more of a place here as their shoddy police work goes a long way in trapping Manny. They take Manny around to other shops that got robbed, telling him to walk in so the people working there can recognize him. They do, every time. Manny cooperates pretty well through all of this, only asking that he be allowed to call his wife because he knows she will be worried about him. The cops do seem to be trying to clear him, but they cannot ignore their wrongfully obtained evidence. They take him back to the precinct and have him write out the same note that the hold up man did, twice. They both match, and the second time he makes the same mistake of leaving off the same part of a word that the robber did (though I’m pretty sure that’s because the cop read it wrong).
Then they do a line up, and the witnesses identify him again. I don’t understand why they even bother after they did the whole walk through the store identification thing, but maybe they thought it wouldn’t hold up in court. Although the line up hardly should have either, the witnesses are in a shadow but otherwise the suspects can see and hear them. The detective actually said the name of one of the witnesses, which the suspects could hear. On the basis of only the line up and the handwriting, they arrest Manny. They do not let him call Rose, saying that she will be notified which I guess they forgot to do or something. Rose is frantically calling everyone trying to find out what happened, while Manny is contemplating his night in jail. He leans his head back against the wall, and the jail cell swims around him showing his overwhelmed state of mind.
Rose manages to get bail, which has been set at about seventy-five hundred dollars which is way out of their reach financially. Not only is Manny on trial for armed robbery, but they are going to get into debt over it. They then go see a lawyer that was recommended to them, Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle) who takes Manny’s case without demanding any money but unfortunately does not have any criminal experience. His first instructions are to try to find alibis for the time of the robberies, which proves hard for them. He has them of course, but anyone who can corroborate is dead or unable to locate. Rose starts losing it by the time they discover the second witness has died. She blames herself unreasonably for what happened to Manny and their money troubles in the first place. On the other hand she blames the unfairness of the outside world as well, saying the family should lock themselves up in their house and never go out again. After O’Conner realizes what’s going on with Rose, he insists that Manny take her to a doctor, who then hospitalizes her.
Then comes the trial, and I promise this is the last time I will complain about the terrible law enforcement procedure (there’s more, but I don’t want to give it away). The prosecution’s case basically consists of the eyewitness testimony and the handwriting, while O’Conner’s strategy is to make sure the jury knows that the prosecution doesn’t have enough evidence to convict. The prosecutor gets his witnesses up there and instructs them to place a hand on the shoulder of the man that robbed them. Really? He is really going to allow direct contact between the witness and the defendant like that? Besides being potentially dangerous, it also serves no purpose because he had already asked her plainly who had robbed her, and she had answered “the defendant.” I really hope that was Hitchcock going for dramatic effect and not how things were actually done in back in the 50s. Anyway, then O’Conner cross examines and tries to point out how unreliable the memories of the witnesses are, but he doesn’t succeed because the jury gets bored with all his questioning that they don’t understand. One of them actually stands up and complains, leaving O’Conner no choice to ask for a mistrial, which he gets. They basically go along waiting for another court date, with Rose still in the hospital and Manny’s mother taking care of the two boys while Manny’s at work, until some more poorly executed police work turns the tide.
The Wrong Man excels with it’s portrayal of the innocent man wrongly accused idea in a different way. This is not like other Hitchcock films where the hero does something heroic to defeat the villain while falling in love with some blond along the way. Manny is basically helpless throughout the whole movie; anything he tries to do goes wrong or yields no results. Practically his entire world has turned against him, besides his mother, sons, and lawyer. It is not any of these people that gets him out of his dire situation though, it is just another twist of fate that saves him.
Henry Fonda did a great job of portraying a man that doesn’t have a lot of power. In the beginning, he deals with family issues and goes to work like anybody would. He’s not a towering example of dominance or anything, but besides his wife’s teeth he doesn’t really have anything to worry about and he keeps pretty calm. He tries to keep the same calm throughout everything that happens, especially after Rose looses hers, but has more and more trouble managing it. We see close ups of his face quite often, where his eyes are really wide and frightened. I felt sorry for Manny the whole time, poor guy. Vera Miles as Rose was also very good. She really got to shine when she went crazy though; she got really freaked out and sometimes seemed like she was in a trance. Her voice became really monotoned and creepy which was wonderful.
The Wrong Man is a wonderful lesson in how NOT to be in law enforcement. It is also a really good example of people who’s fates are determined almost entirely by circumstances outside of their control and what a toll this can take. It’s a darker sort of Hitchcock film, but it’s definitely still a Hitchcock film. Another thing he does different here is his signature cameo; he appears in the beginning with a voice over intro like in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and he does not do a traditional Hitchcock cameo where you have to hunt for him. I can only suppose this is going along with the idea of this being a more realistic Hitchcock film, which he does brilliantly throughout.
“An innocent man has nothing to fear, remember that.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars