#305. The Wrong Man (1956)

I’m gonna ring here the same bell about Alfred Hitchcock that I’ve been ringing since Rear Window: more often than not, Hitchcock’s movies are more interesting for how they develop the Hitchcock brand than they are as stand-alone movies. I like Rear Window just fine, for instance, but if it’d been made by Steven Spielberg I’d have said, after seeing it, that this Spielberg guy sure knows how to make a popcorn movie, and I might not’ve given it much more thought. The fact that it was a Hitchcock Movie, though, made me wanna study the color palate of the apartment complex and compare it to the elaborate and meticulously constructed skyline we see through the window in Rope, made me wanna look for Hitchcock’s motifs of voyeurism, false accusation, complicated mother-son relationships; made me wanna look for the way that action tends to come at us through a camera lens, or framed within a window or doorway.

            The foot fetish.

Similarly, I’m not all that taken with The Wrong Man, a “docudrama” in which Henry Fonda plays Manny Balestrero, a musician who was falsely accused of robbery, tried for his alleged crimes, re-tried for those criems, and released only when the real perp was suddenly and fortuitously apprehended and driven toward confession.

            When I looked at the Wikipedia page I saw that The Wrong Man is noteworthy among cinephiles for having sparked one of Francois Truffaut’s longest pieces of criticism. That essay, collected here, has Truffaut pointing out that this is Hitchcock’s first black-and-white film in a long time (which I’m not sure I even registered) and that the movie—it’s immediately apparent—was made for a considerably lower budget than he’s been working with for his past few movies.

            Consider the sprawling climax of Strangers on a Train, where Hitchcock’s got a whole carnival at his dispoal, or the elaborate set design of Rear Window. The Wrong Man will be followed by North by Northwest, a country-crossing blockbuster whose climax takes place on Mt. Rushmore.

            But I think he was right to handle the material this way, to make it on the cheap and with accordance to the letter of fact (although he does apparently fib the closing remark about Balestrero’s wife recovering from her nervous breakdown two years after he’d been freed; Balestrero says she never recovered), because although it does now bear some of the made-for-TV quality that we see with the likes of Phenix City Story and even Ida Lupino’s remarkable Bigamist, the viewer who’s interested in the Hitchcock brand is seeing him take a grittier and, for him, probably more painful look at this wrong-man theme, this fear of police, that’s characterized so much of his work.

            But the story’s still a little too simple to carry its own weight. It has, in its surface narrative, the substance of a Law & Order episode; the cinematic substance, in my eyes, comes from our metafictional awareness of who’s making it. New Yorker film critic Richard Brody, in an astute video essay for the magazine’s website, argues that the richness of the movie, rather than being metatextual (as I’m arguing), is metaphysical. Argues that the movie has something to do with inherent guilt. I don’t agree with his idea that Balestrero himself is some kind of Biblical symbol of Cain, but he makes a good point about Balestrero’s wife, played by Vera Miles, feeling guilty for the fact that her toothache is the issue that prompted her husband to go to the bank in the first place, where he was originally mistaken for the culprit.

Truffaut argues that The Wrong Man is a kind of companion piece to Bresson’s A Man Escaped, released the same year, by merit of its minimalism, the fact that it’s so centered as the lonely story of a lonely man—but I disagree. Bresson’s move is more gripping and artful and moody than this one. Generally and resoundingly better.

            I’ve made clear at this point that Henry Fonda, with the chops he demonstrated in Jezebel and Grapes of Wrath and My Darling Clementine, is one of my favorite actors by merit of the way that his performance manages to consistently keep me interested in material that would otherwise push me away. And here, as ever, he’s great as a poor humble musician with a family, an average guy who’s swept up into this shit show, made helplessly angry and horrified by the blind machinations of the justice system—but even he didn’t get me into it. (To Fonda’s credit, however, it’s neat to see how he’s flexing some strength and resolve here as Balestrero, but none of the hot-tempered, razorous, spring-at-any-moment vitality of his earlier roles. He looks vulnerable and older here. The kind of start-no-trouble guy who’s reflexively intimidated by police–much like Hitchcock himself.)

            But, harkening back to the Hitchcock brand, The Wrong Man interests me for the way that it presents a window into the maestro’s deepest fear: police (which, if you haven’t heard, seems to’ve sprouted from this experience when he was five or six years old: to instill in young Alfred a fear of the law, his father sent him to the jailhouse with a note for the jailer, a note he was forbidden from reading, and which apparently asked the jailer if he would kindly lock the young boy in a jail cell for a few minutes just to see what it was like; the jailer complied).

            But even that didn’t excite me so much.

            I’m glad it exists for the sake of its contribution to the Hithcock mythos, and I even got a huge kick out of Truffaut’s essay with its earnest fanaticism (it’s cool to hear established artists rhapsodize about their idols and to know that I’m not too much a nerd to find myself prone to the same thing).

What took an embarrassingly long time to occur to me is that The Wrong Man, being the story of somebody falsely accused, falls in line with other McCarthy-minded movies of its time, wherein innocent people are attacked for crimes they didn’t commit and later made to preside, morally, over their accusers: Johnny Guitar, Silver Lode, High Noon. It isn’t so overtly political as any of those movies–there’s a study to be made about what appears to be Hitchcock’s a-political filmmaking. He was, after all, English. He was great at making movies, it was all he knew how to do, and I suspect that, fearful as he ever was of authority, he was unwilling to rustle the feathers of an authority figure.

            So it’s an interesting movie on several fronts, but I don’t think I’ll be seeing this again, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody but an avowed Hitchcock fan.

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