Friday, August 21, 2015

The Wrong Man (Warner Bros., 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a great movie, The Wrong Man, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s least known and most underrated movies, made in 1957 at Warner Bros. Hitchcock had had a rather troubled tenure at Warners from 1948 to 1953; at first he was an independent producer, working with British producer Sidney Bernstein for a company they formed called Transatlantic Pictures which would distribute through Warners. They made two films under this arrangement, Rope (1948), which was a modest success; and Under Capricorn (1949), which was a bomb financially even though it’s an uneven but often compelling film (and the last and weakest of Hitchcock’s three collaborations with Ingrid Bergman). Then Hitchcock signed to work for Warners directly and made four films there: Stage Fright (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953) and Dial “M” for Murder (1953). Of these, Strangers on a Train and Dial “M” for Murder did well at the box office, and Dial “M” pointed to the direction of his later career because Grace Kelly was in it (it was their first of three films together) and Hitchcock went over to Paramount on a more favorable deal — though, at least according to his biographer John Russell Taylor, he went back to Warner Bros. to make The Wrong Man “because he felt he owed them something” to pay them back for the flops he’d made there earlier. Well, The Wrong Man also flopped, and it’s easy to see why — it wasn’t the sort of romantic thriller, laced with sexual innuendo and comic relief, audiences were expecting from Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950’s.

He was inspired to make it by reading a magazine article about Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero (Henry Fonda), a bass player at the posh Stork Club in New York City who’s married to Rose (Vera Miles) and has two sons, 8-year-old Bob (Kippy Campbell) and 5-year-old Gregory (Robert Essen), who in a rare moment of domestic not-quite-harmony he’s offering to teach music. When the movie open the Balestreros’ main problem is financial: they’re continually going into debt and then getting sucked back into it just when they think they’re ready to start pulling their finances together and getting ahead (sounds all too familiar!), and the latest crisis that threatens to plunge them back into penury is an unexpected $300 dentist’s fee for removing Rose’s impacted wisdom teeth. To raise the money, Manny takes her life-insurance policy to the company that issued it so he can find out if he can borrow enough on it to pay for Rose’s dental work. Only when he arrives the three women who staff the office start acting squirrelly and one of them ducks into the private office of the company’s boss — they suspect that Manny is the man who held them up twice in a five-month period the previous year — and Manny is ultimately picked up by the police and told to go into several stores that were similarly held up to see if the people working there can identify him as their robber. The police essentially try to browbeat him into a confession — this was before the U. S. Supreme Court mandated the Miranda warnings, so they not only don’t give him the warning that anything he might say can be used in evidence against him (though that was already the law in Hitchcock’s native Britain — in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” the American criminal who’s just been arrested for a murder he committed in the U. K. is given the warning with what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle calls “the magnificent fair play of the British criminal law”), they don’t offer him the chance to call an attorney, and — what’s most irritating to Manny — they don’t even give him the chance to call home and explain to his wife, his kids and his mom (Esther Minciotti) why he hasn’t come home at 5:30 p.m. as he had promised. (One odd aspect of the early part of the movie is it shows Manny playing at the Stork Club all night and then running errands all day. When does he sleep? And when did he and Rose find the time to have sex and produce the kids?)

What makes The Wrong Man such an unusual movie in the Hitchcock canon is that, because it was based on a true story, he decided to shoot it in a semi-documentary manner, shooting as much as possible on the real locations — the actual office building where the holdups took place and the actual police station where Manny was held and the courtroom where he was tried — though apparently, according to an “Trivia” poster, he drew the line at shooting in the freezing cold at the resort in Cornwall in upstate New York where Manny and Rose, at the insistence of his attorney (when he finally gets one!) Frank O’Connor (a former prosecutor turned defense lawyer whom Hitchcock hired as one of his technical advisors), have gone because they were staying there when one of the robberies occurred and they’re hoping to find some of the other guests there at the same time so they can serve as alibi witnesses. According to the post, Hitchcock refused to go into the cold weather of a New York winter; he sat in the car while the scene was shot and moved the rest of the production to the familiar environs of Hollywood. Nonetheless, The Wrong Man gains greatly from its documentary aspects — even though someone actually incarcerated in the New York City jail when the film was shot apparently recognized Fonda, thought he’d really been arrested and asked, “What are you in for, Henry?” — and from Hitchcock’s utter refusal to romanticize the story or go for his usual high-tension suspense editing.

In a way, The Wrong Man is a better film of Franz Kafka’s The Trial than the one Orson Welles actually made from Kafka’s work; the frustrations pile on for Manny, as the two alibi witnesses he thought he’d successfully traced turn out to be dead, his long-awaited trial finally occurs — and is interrupted by a juror who stands up during O’Connor’s cross-examination of one of the women at the insurance company who identified him and says, “Why must we listen to all this?” Without consulting Manny, O’Connor immediately moves for a mistrial, the prosecutor makes no objection, and the judge grants the motion — only Manny has no idea what just happened. When O’Connor tells him, Manny groans, “You mean I’ll have to go through all this again?” The biggest cross Manny has had to bear is the total mental breakdown of his wife Rose, who starts to detach as they’re running around New York state looking for anybody who can testify they were somewhere else when the robberies occurred, and who ends up in a mental institution after the psychiatrist who’d seen her says that’s the only way to restore her to sanity. About the only “plant” in Maxwell Anderson’s and Angus MacPhail’s script is that Manny is a devout Roman Catholic — when he’s arrested and all his other possessions (including the $6 and change he was carrying as well as his wife’s insurance policy, which he was trying to borrow money on when all this started) are confiscated, he’s allowed to keep his rosary beads. He’s shown fingering them at key moments in his ordeal, including during the trial, and when he’s back home on bail his mom — who’s living there because someone needs to help take care of the kids with his wife hors de combat in a mental hospital — tells him to pray, he does so, Hitchcock dollies his camera over to a sacred-heart painting on the wall … and just then Manny’s prayers are answered as the real hold-up man (Richard Robbins) attempts another robbery, the husband and wife who run the deli he’s trying to stick up overpower him and call the police, and he’s finally exonerated — though the woman who originally fingered Manny as her robber identifies the new arrestee as the criminal, and one wonders what his attorney is going to make of this if the case ever comes to trial: “But you were equally sure in the previous trial that it was someone else!”

Through much of this movie Hitchcock plays against his usual strengths as a director: instead of moving the action at a fast pace he slows himself down so we in the audience feel Manny’s torment as bad break upon bad break piles up on the poor man. (This is what I meant when I said this was a more “Kafka-esque” film than The Trial; Manny is burdened not only by the false accusation against him but by a legal system he doesn’t even begin to comprehend.) Though there are a few consciously “artistically” framed shots, most of the movie is pretty plainly photographed (by Hitchcock’s favorite cinematographer, Robert Burks, a Warners contract man he’d started using while he was under contract there and had taken with him to Paramount and Universal), and though he shot one of his usual cameo appearances Hitchcock decided not to use it and instead appeared as himself, a shadowy image, introducing the story and telling the audience, “This is Alfred Hitchcock speaking. In the past, I have given you many kinds of suspense pictures. But this time, I would like you to see a different one. The difference lies in the fact that this is a true story, every word of it. And yet it contains elements that are stranger than all the fiction that has gone into many of the thrillers that I’ve made before.” (According to, this is the only time Hitchcock spoke in a feature film, though by this time the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show had been on the air for two years and audiences were familiar with his voice — and in later years he’d appear and speak in the trailers to Psycho and The Birds.)

The Wrong Man also has two of the finest leading performances ever in a Hitchcock movie: Henry Fonda (an actor Hitchcock had long wanted to work with, though they made only this one film together) projects just the right combination of sincerity and ineffectuality — one doesn’t believe this man could possibly be a street criminal but one also doesn’t believe in him as the usual Hitchcockian man of action, anxious to prove himself innocent of the charge against him by tearing off across the country looking for the real culprit. Manny Balestrero, as Fonda brings him to life, has a guileless faith all will work out for him even as his marriage, his reputation and his life as he’s known it are crumbling to bits around him, and as Charles pointed out, in his faith in God and his religion as the one force in his life that really is on his side, his story becomes an even more powerful portrayal of Hitchcock’s own religiosity than his outright “Catholic” film, I Confess (though I regard that movie as another of Hitchcock’s most underrated films and mentioned it in connection with The Da Vinci Code and my wish Hitchcock could have still been around to direct that). Charles also noted that The Wrong Man is one of the most openly proletarian of Hitchcock’s movies; one would expect an Alfred Hitchcock film whose opening scene takes place at the notoriously pricey Stork Club to be about a customer who gets into trouble with the law, not an employee (and one could readily imagine Cary Grant’s character from North by Northwest taking his latest girlfriend de jour there before the events of that innocent-man-on-the-run story overtake him). Instead of lashing himself on a cross-country journey after the real culprit the way Robert Cummings’ character in Hitchcock’s Saboteur did, Manny doesn’t think until the very end of the film that if he didn’t commit the robberies, someone out there did, and either he’s still at large or he’s dead or he’s in jail for a crime he pulled in another state and will never be linked to the ones Manny is accused of in New York.

And Fonda’s excellence is fully matched by Vera Miles, who is utterly haunting in her transformation from normal put-upon urban housewife to withdrawn mental case. Aided by the Anderson-MacPhail script, which avoids putting her through any obvious, stereotypical scenes of mad raving, hair-pulling or the other silly ways most movies then depicted crazy women, Miles nails every step of her gradual withdrawal from normal humanity and the twisted view she acquires of her husband, her children and their relationships. Especially chilling is the scene in which she has her moment of doubt and asks Manny point-blank if he is indeed guilty. Hitchcock intended The Wrong Man as the opening gun in his campaign to make Vera Miles his next superstar (his replacement for Grace Kelly after she quit acting to become the Princess of Monaco); he developed Vertigo as the film that would nail down the reputation he expected her to get from The Wrong Man — only in the meantime Vera Miles married Gordon Scott, Hollywood’s latest Tarzan, and got pregnant by him. Kim Novak replaced her in Vertigo and Hitchcock never forgave her (though he put her in Psycho as Janet Leigh’s sister because she was under contract to him and he figured he might get some work out of her for the money he was paying her); years later he’d say things like, “She could have been the biggest star in Hollywood — only she married that monkey!”