From the outset of The Wrong Man, it’s evident that this is a very different kind of Hitchcock film. Which turns out to be both good and bad. For one thing, Hitch’s beloved cameo appearance is absent for the first and only time in his oeuvre. Instead, he sets the stage by walking toward the camera as a brightly backlit silhouette in a dark alley, informing us that unlike any of his other pictures, this one is a true story. Whereupon the ensuing explanatory note tells us that this tale is “stranger than the strangest fiction.” In this stark docudrama, in other words, Hitch’s characteristic flair for the melodramatic and suspenseful take a back seat to realism. The result is a film that becomes a bit clinical at times, dragging from event to event along a timeline as the wheels of justice churn ahead slowly. Nevertheless, as audiences had come to expect from Hitchcock, The Wrong Man also exhibits a trenchant eye for details of both the visual and the verbal kind.
We see this sharp analytic mind at work in one of the film’s opening scenes. Financially struggling musician Christopher Balestrero (Henry Fonda) has just exited the posh Stork Club where he plays the bass in a jazz band. In a compelling use of foreshadowing, Hitchcock depicts him as being followed by two policemen through a darkened alley from the club’s back entrance. This is not only a marvelous use of noir-ish imagery. It is also a way of establishing the film’s major theme: how an unfortunate series of coincidences can cause an innocent man to endure sufferings of nearly Job-like proportions. All Balestrero is doing to deserve these harsh buffetings of fate is going about his daily business. He works, grabs dinner, and heads home, and then does it all over again. The turning point occurs when he has to do something out of the oridinary—borrow against the insurance policy of his wife Rose (Vera Miles) to help pay for her dental work. Apparently, there’d been a hold-up at the office a while back and one of the tellers recognizes him as the culprit. Or does she?
She might doubt her memory if she actually knew the man we, the audience, come to know—a predictable-as-the-tides protagonist, churchgoer, devoted hubby, steadfast provider, and father of two. But hazy memories are so much more convenient as an impetus to action, particularly when they’re buttressed by a willingness to put one’s mind at ease through self-deceit. The teller is merely an obtuse twit who can easily be forgiven. Hitch saves his real scorn for the bungling police investigators, led by head detective Jack Lee (Harold J. Stone). This film shows us just how warped U.S. justice was in the era before DNA testing. Despite reassuring Balestrero that he’s “giving him every chance,” Lee pounces on circumstantial evidence like a puma on a hare. “If you come up with something else, we’ll listen,” he growls. Apparently all that was necessary for a conviction back in the day was a close facial resemblance and a matching handwriting sample.
Like Jimmy Stewart, Fonda is a perfect choice to play the everyman characters so frequently employed by Hitchcock. In this respect, in fact, The Wrong Man is like so many of the director’s other films. Think North by Northwest or The Man Who Knew Too Much. Only Balestrero doesn’t get entangled in international espionage. This is a simple case of mistaken identity and miscarriage of justice. And Fonda, an actor with a personality as bland as steamed cabbage, doesn’t even put up much of a fight. He chalks it up to bad luck and says his rosary. His face is practically expressionless, akin to a character in a Bresson film, even when we see a close-up of him peering out from behind the iron bars he never thought he’d be trapped behind.
Hitchcock is confronting us with the question of the extent to which documentary-ish realism can intersect with aesthetic excellence. At times, the film does seem lacking in the latter. Yes, it’s a poignant story about how evil circumstances can beset good people. Yes, it is a timelessly relevant story in which justice prevails in the end. But we ultimately aren’t left with much more than a factual skeleton. The Wrong Man may be powerful in its simplicity, but it has few secrets. Repeat viewings are unlikely, unless it’s to see Hitchcock’s visual tricks of the trade—his chiaroscuro, his close-ups, his timing—though it hardly features among the director’s best work even in those respects.
Not that Hitchcock hasn’t lapsed into tedium many times before in fiction-based pictures, crawling through an interminable detective investigation in Dial M for Murder and talking himself hoarse in the courtroom drama The Paradine Case. The Wrong Man, too, suffers from the stagnancy of police fingerprinting and line-ups. Likewise, we have to sit through some trial ennui after the worried couple hire a husky young lawyer named Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle) to take their case. To these somewhat tiresome tropes, Hitch adds a psychiatric subplot involving Rose, played with annoying histrionics by Vera Miles, who becomes catatonic after she finds out that a couple of witnesses who could have given her hubby an alibi have since died. Leaden psychoanalysis, one might observe, also weighs down films like Psycho and Spellbound.
But even if The Wrong Man fails in ways we’ve seen before, it also beckons us on a type of filmic journey new to Hitchcock, one in which sympathy for the characters is easier because we know that the events really happened. While The Wrong Man may lack the edge-of-your-seat suspense and serpentine complexity that typify Hitch’s best films, it is a rare chance to see the director more as a justice-conscious reporter than as a virtuosic audience manipulator. As an experimentation for Hitchcock, The Wrong Man at least traveled the right track even if the train sometimes sputtered along the way.
Joe’s Grade: B