Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Wrong Man


Although this is in some ways the quintessential Hitchcock film, in that it revolves entirely around an innocent man wrongly accused of a crime, it is in every other aspect miles away from anything else he ever did. First, it is based on fact, and apparently sticks pretty rigorously to the real events and characters. Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda, in a wonderfully restrained performance) really was accused, arrested, and tried based on eyewitness testimony. It shows how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be, but to be fair, the man who really did commit the crimes Manny is accused of really did look a lot like him. During the course of his family’s ordeal Manny’s wife (Vera Miles, equally good in her role) went crazy and had to be put in an institution, suffering from paranoia and acute depression. (She later recovered.) I don’t know if the timelines and events are totally accurate. If, for instance, there really was a mistrial and if the real villain was discovered just before the retrial. But it doesn’t really matter. It all works.

I don’t think the term “docu-drama” had been coined yet, but that’s what this is. Unlike all the other Hitchcock films I’ve seen, there is no wry wit, no glamour, nothing we really associate with him except for a few brilliant camera shots and angles. Much of it was shot on location on the streets of New York, much of it in real locations such as the jail. It is gritty and real, in every respect. There is no phony ramping up of tension. It all unfolds with the matter-of-fact kind of police work that happens in the real world. Believe me, I know something about this. I spent 30 days in the LA County Jail a long time ago (I have no problem admitting this; it was a bullshit charge, later dismissed), and the claustrophobic feeling of the world receding from you and the bars wrapping around you is chillingly accurate. Your humanity is taken away from you bit by bit, you come under the control of people indifferent to your fate, you stop being a person and become a number. It must have been a bit of an ordeal to Hitch to film, given his lifelong fear of police and jails. It was influenced by the New Realism of the Italians and the New Wave of the French at that time, and is as good as any of them. The main problem with it, and certainly the reason it was not a box office success, is that it’s depressing. No other Hitchcock film is depressing. Sure, justice triumphs in the end, but at what a cost. But there’s also little doubt that it is Hitchcock’s most moving film, dealing is it does with ordinary people and their ordinary lives, not imaginary jewel thieves on the Riviera. It was written by Maxwell Anderson, who has many screen credits at the IMDb but almost all of them were for a play that served as source material. This looks like his only complete screenplay. It’s a damn good one.