The Wrong Man – Alfred Hitchcock
Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero (Henry Fonda), a New York bass player, works nights at the Stork Club and comes home to his wife Rose (Vera Miles) and their children in the early morning. Although he likes to chart the horses while riding the subway, perhaps because his family is never financially ahead, he seldom bets on his selections. He and Rose lead what might be described as a life of quiet desperation; soon, however, they find out what true desperation is. “Manny,” as Balestrero is nicknamed, goes to borrow money on his wife’s insurance policy and in the process is misidentified as a holdup man by one of the cashiers, whose fellow employees join in the error. Returning home, Manny is picked up by two detectives who take him in for questioning. In the course of interrogating him, they ask him to write the words of a note which had been used by the holdup man. The anxious Manny accidentally misspells a word and soon finds himself charged with robbery and spending the night in a Queens jail.
In the morning, he is freed on the bail raised by his family and proceeds to engage a lawyer, Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle), who believes in his innocence. O’Connor explains to Manny and Rose the importance of establishing an alibi, but the people he might have used as witnesses either have died or cannot be found. Rose begins to despair and finally has a nervous breakdown. After she is placed in a mental hospital, the saddened Manny stands trial, but a mistrial is declared and he must face the entire process once again. He prays; and at that very moment, the holdup man walks into a store to rob again but is subdued by the owners. One of the detectives who arrested Manny notices the resemblance between the two, and Manny is finally cleared of the charges and released. He goes to the mental hospital to tell Rose that the nightmare is over, but for her, it is not. “That’s fine for you,” she tells him, staring blankly into space.
Although this story sounds similar to the sort of nightmarish fabrication which might be expected from Alfred Hitchcock, the premise is not his own. The Wrong Man is singular among his works in that the story is a true one, a fact that he emphasizes in a personal appearance at the beginning of the film. It is sometimes said that Hitchcock needs very fanciful plots in order to make the kind of film associated with him, but it is impossible to believe this after seeing The Wrong Man, which is one of his most hypnotic and compelling films.
In The Wrong Man, we find both the themes and techniques closely associated with Hitchcock. He engages freely in the subjective shots for which he is celebrated, building up in the audience the same fear and claustrophobia which Manny feels when he is arrested and locked up. These sequences have a quiet intensity and concentration which reflect the director’s masterful control over what may be his own anxiety; Hitchcock has stated many times that he has a dread of jails and the police as a result of a traumatic childhood experience. The mistaken identity theme is one which Hitchcock has favored often, but as a rule, it has appeared in films with considerably less sobriety of tone than The Wrong Man. Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959) are more appropriate works to display Hitchcock’s rich sense of humor than the story of a man and his wife who actually suffered the tragedy described by the film. Regarding the theme of the transfer of guilt, one of Hitchcock’s most striking and individual motifs, nowhere in the director’s work is there a more dramatic example than that of the wife who goes mad by assuming the guilt she perceives to be part of the fabric of her life and her husband’s even though he is completely innocent. ‘