June 11, 2023

The Wrong Man (1956)
Grade: 69/100

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Henry Fonda, Vera Miles, Anthony Quail

What it's about. The Wrong Man is based on the true story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero. Balestrero is a base fiddle player at the Stork Club, a posh nightclub in New York City. He is also a family man, with a devoted wife and two young children. In need of money to pay for his wife's dental work, he visits his insurance company to take out a loan.

There, he is mistaken for a man who recently committed a robbery. His life then falls apart quickly. His co-operation with the unsympathetic police only convinces them further of his guilt. In the pre-Miranda environment, he isn't given a lawyer until his court hearing, and isn't allowed to contact his worried family. When Balestrero is finally able to make bail and hire a competent attorney (Anthony Quail), his long-suffering wife (Vera Miles) has a complete breakdown and must be committed to an institution.

How others will see it. How I felt about it. Without a doubt, Alfred Hitchcock's favorite film theme was the 'Wrong Man', somebody (usually male) falsely accused of a serious crime (usually murder). Often, this unlucky person then tries to evade the law, in order to prove his innocence. He typically romances an icy blonde who hates him at first, but then comes around. Of course, everything works out in the end, and our man is not only vindicated, but proves himself to be a hero.

It was ironic, then, that when Hitchcock finally named a film after his oft-repeated (and highly successful) formula, that it was a very different movie. There were no spy rings to be busted, and no beautiful, unattached strangers in need of seducing. In fact, the comic relief, romance, action, and glamour common to most Hitchcock thrillers was nearly absent. While Vera Miles is lovely, she grows more distant as the film progresses. The ending is a happy one, but unsatisfying, as if pasted on to satisfy the marketing demands of the studio.

The bleak and grim nature of the story is accentuated by the black and white cinematography. Hitchcock felt compelled to let the audience know what to expect by introducing the film himself, which proved to be his only speaking role in any of his films, though of course his wry introductions were usual in episodes of his television series.

The Wrong Man is good, of course. Particularly effective is the scene where Fonda enjoys the comeuppance of staring silently at the two women whose disproven mistaken identification almost sent him to prison. Fonda is ideally cast as the earnest, upstanding Balestrero, who can only react in confusion as the world he knows is stripped away from him.

But, there are some problems. Quayle is too ideal of an attorney, willing to represent the nearly penniless Fonda. Miles' character turn, from perfect wife to brooding schizophrenic, is strictly cinematic. Perhaps Fonda's character is too meek, to willing to acquiesce to the will of his police handlers. And the rapid clearing of Fonda's character of his supposed crimes, after the arrest of a lookalike, seems unlikely given the relentless momentum of the justice system.

A couple of scenes were eye-rollers. A police investigator informs the booking officer of Fonda's character name, Christopher Emanuel Balestrero, and the booking officer doesn't ask for any of it to be spelled out. Indeed, it just takes him a moment to record the name. Another scene has Fonda and wife looking for an elderly acquaintance, and asking a youth in the same tenement building the location of the acquaintance. And the youth knows!

Finally, Vera Miles is too young and beautiful to be credible of Fonda's impoverished middle-aged milquetoast character.