The Wrong Man
I think Alfred Hitchcock was a monumental director. My adoration of his cinematic work continues with The Wrong Man. Shot in New York City 1956, this film is more a commentary on socio-political ills, than the true story it's based on. In the The Wrong Man Hitch directed a film that has a resemblance to the works of Kafka and almost makes you cry out at the wrongdoing contained in it.
Henry Fonda couldn't have been better cast in this film. He plays his mild-mannered, soft-spoken victim of false identity with such docility, you want to tell him: please speak up, don't let'em do this to you! Hitch manipulates us through dialogue and scene settings into seeing the police as totalitarian agents, seeking to punish an innocent man. The police appear more criminal than the suspect, Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero (Fonda). Balestrero is a law-abiding musician that has the unfortunate bad luck to visit a local bank to obtain a loan on his wife's insurance policy.He wants the loan for some dental work she needs. Once there, an employee recognizes him as a robber that hit the place a few weeks earlier.
He is followed to his home by straight-faced, methodical police, then plucked at his doorway and put into a unmarked police cruiser. We see him sandwiched between two cops in a car, looking lamb-like and sacrificial as he is driven from location to location, and inspected by potential accusers. He is searched at a precinct, and placed in the spare and cold quarters of a New York City jail cell. This whole process is done with little protestation from him. What makes this so hard for the viewers to take is we know he's innocent. With this knowledge, the police appear corrupt and set on finding a scapegoat.But, they are not the only ones worthy of moral scorn. Mannie Balestrero's accusers are to be damned too. They consent to fingering a man, whom bears a chance resemblance to the real criminal. None stops to think what they're doing might be wrong, or that they could be mistaken, or even question their accusations. The sequence in which Fonda is taken to various merchants' stores and told to walk in, stride through the store and come out is painful to watch. You feel the power of a state authority over the individual as this meek, compliant-by-nature man obeys, what surely will only help to convict him of a crime he didn't commit.
By the far, the most compelling scene for me personally occurs when the cops induce Fonda to give them a handwriting sample to compare to a note the real thief wrote during a bank robbery. At one point, Fonda misspells drawer as draw and the detective tells him this is exactly how the robber spelled it, and concludes they've found their man. I almost leaped into the air at that point! I screamed at the screen, that's exactly how I misspelled that word once about 10 years ago!!!!!! Why if I were there, they would've concluded the same thing about me! I know that Hitchcock didn't put that sequence in just for me, but the coincidence was mesmerizing. He was showing how the slightest fateful chance, led to a dire consequence for an innocent man. A point made all the more meaningful to me having made the exact same error in my real life.
For the master of suspense, nail-biting suspense is not employed at all in this piece. Instead, Hitch grabs us with our sense of empathy for a man subjected to false criminal prosecution that nearly destroys him, his wife and family. The outrage we feel as Fonda finds himself facing increasing adversity because of a simple mistaken identity is so strong you can taste it.
There is a sub-story contained involving Balestrero's wife and her descent into what appears to be depressive delusional madness. I found this element of the film uninteresting and distractive, but as a part of the true story, her performance is necessary. Vera Miles was convincing in her role as a woman slipping into paranoid delusion, mind you, but just not what interests me most in this film.
My last comment on this film is to question if it could have worked for viewers had it not been presented as it was. By this I mean, if we weren't told all the facts of the story. If we didn't know Mannie Balestrero was innocent of any crime from the outset, would we have been able to feel and empathize with him, not knowing he was innocent? Could we? I am not sure if we could. If we were given a story claiming to be true, but not revealing that the film's star is innocent, would we not have been launched into a cynical trap? Had Fonda played the same role, diffident, complying and unassuming, would we not have then still suspected him of really being guilty. I don't know. Hitch, were you alive this is question I would have like to put to you. Henry Fonda, were you alive I would like to know what your opinion would be on this question.
12/13/08 Robleh Wais