Film review by Jason Day of the movie thriller The Wrong Man (1956), starring Henry Fonda, Vera Miles and directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
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Based on real-life events, musician Christopher Emanuel ‘Manny’ Balestrero is arrested by the police after circumstantial – but compelling – evidence suggests he is the man responsible for a series of violent armed hold-ups. Manny quietly protests his innocence, but submits to the horrifying process before him, unbeknownst to his wife Rose (Vera Miles) who worries at home with the burdens of family life and her dental problems that led Manny to leave their house in the first place.
The stress of the ordeal has far-reaching consequences for both of them.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
The difference lies in the fact this is a true story, every word of it. But stranger than fiction that had gone into many of the films I have made before.Producer/director Alfred Hitchcock introduces his docu-drama The Wrong Man.
Sandwiched between more well-known efforts – the lavish The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and the immortal Vertigo (1958) – is this decidedly pared-down, poverty row studio looking crime drama from Alfred Hitchcock.
Given that Hitch opts to shoot this movie in black and white you might think he was trying to shave a few dollars off the production (as he did with Psycho, 1960), but it does add to the documentary-realism of the piece. And this is based on a true story, as he tells us with his inimitable drawl during the film’s opening.
Hitch opts for surprise casting with the leads. Upright, morally incorruptible Henry Fonda plays Manny and as Rose is the relatively unknown, former beauty contest winner Vera Miles, who first caught the great man’s eyes in an episode of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series the previous year.
The pairing works perfectly dramatically (these actors totally convince us they are a devoted, cash-poor, love-rich couple) but given the obvious chasm between their ages, you do scratch your head about how they got it together.
In real-life Fonda was 51 and Miles 27 when the movie was released, but Miles is an accomplished performer who acts older than her years. (Also, they have two young sons who are around 8-10 years old. Is Hitch suggesting Fonda wed a child bride and might be guilty of other crimes, moral or legal?)
The character of Manny is subservient to the police and given the glut of police procedural TV drama we have had chance to see since this movie was released, with aggressive, rights-protesting suspects, this make him seem like a real odd-bod ‘perp’.
But his cards were marked from the get go. At the insurance office we see him from behind the bars of the teller’s desk. Hitch toying with us viewers; the female clerk*, shaken from a previous encounter with a robber who looks exactly like Fonda, is pressured by her colleagues to point the finger at him.
Hitch uses camera and editing with tight precision. The clerk is asked to look at Fonda but he is partly obscured (at one point so is she, with her pushy colleagues gaining physical prominence on the screen) and he turns away as she looks at him, yet still this is enough to ‘convince’ her he did the dirty deed.
None of this would stand up in a court of law, but Hitch has us gripped and draws us into his own personal nightmare. Hitch had a self-confessed fear of the police and of being arrested and incarcerated after, or so the legend goes, being sent by his father to the police as a child with a note that led to him being placed in a cell for a few minutes. Without explanation.
As Manny is ‘processed’ by the police, the procedure is clean and by-the-book. He passively, mousily protests his innocence as he asked an array of seemingly ridiculous questions (at least for us), like does he take narcotics. He opines that he “…never called my wife”. “That’s been taken care of” he is told, but Rose has not been contacted.
When Manny is attested in court the microphone obscures part of his face as he speaks. His personality removed, Manny is just another body awaiting ‘the slammer’.
Manny is banged up and surveys his new home, one shorn of the twee comfiness of his actual one. A blazingly white sink signifies the ‘bathroom’ and there are cracks and grime of a thousand other inhabitants etched into the undecorated walls and ceiling.
As his new reality sets in, Hitch’s camera spin around him and the pounding echo of his name echoes off the surfaces.
Only Fonda could convince at being so politely servile during all of this, to never protest loudly. But Manny is not weak, he just knows when the resources to properly defend himself are non-existent and to save his voice for future impact. From The Grapes of Wrath to the sours of New York society, calumnies have to be born until the right time to properly speak out.
Of Miles this movie was intended as a sort-of debut in what would have been – had she acquiesced to Hitch’s dubious, obsessional attentions – her introduction to stardom. Hitch ensures it’s all eyes and ears on her, but she proved to be less malleable and more mighty than his other ‘cool blondes’.
Her portrayal of someone dragged down by a spiraling level of circumstance, confusion and incomprehension is nothing short of masterly. Her character eventually snaps under the strain and Miles intuitively grasps the notion that the madness Rose succumbs to would never be of the hand-flailing, shouty, sweary brand that someone like Joseph in Surge (2021) experiences.
Following this illustrious boost to her career Miles was set to go straight into Vertigo, the movie Hitch intended to be her star-making role. He planned to create the next Grace Kelly, who famously dumped him to become something as inconsequential as a Princess (of Monaco).
Production delays meant the rolling of cameras was held-up and when things did get going a newly-wed Miles was pregnant, infuriating Hitch enough that he gave her role to Kim Novak (whom he hated working with).
As if to rub salt into the ‘snub’, Miles had been impregnated by none other than the silver screen’s Tarzan, the strapping Gordon Scott. Left by Kelly for a Prince and Miles for a loincloth wearing hunk, Hitch’s ego must have taken a battering, but the Miles and Scott love-extravaganza did not last long. They divorced in 1960; perhaps Hitch had a wry chuckle at that.
*FYI, the clerk is played by Doreen Lang, the hysterical mother in the diner scene in Hitch’s The Birds (1963).
Director: Alfred Hitchcock. 1hr45 min/105min. Warner Bros. (PG).
Cast & credits
Producer: Alfred Hitchcock.
Writers: Maxwell Anderson, Angus MacPhail.
Camera: Robert Burks.
Music: Bernard Hermann.
Sets: Paul Sylbert.
Henry Fonda Vera Miles, Anthony Quayle, Harold J. Stone, Charles Cooper, John Heldabrand, Esther Minciotti, Doreen Lang, Laurinda Barrett, Norma Connelly, Nehemiah Persoff, Lola D’Annunzio, Kippy Campbell, Robert Essen.