The Wrong Man is perhaps Alfred Hitchcock’s strangest picture, in part because it is his least strange.
The Wrong Man is perhaps Alfred Hitchcock’s strangest picture, in part because it is his least strange. The strained sexual pathologies of the auteur’s usual work is absent, and, in its place, even a hallmark of Hitchcock’s work – that of mistaken identity and false accusation – is rendered less as psychological drama than social commentary. Even the beginning is strange, introducing the director at once in plain view and obscuring silhouette. Hitchcock stands not in the profile shadow that adorned his television series but in the deep recesses of a high-angle long shot, backlit by a burst of light against total darkness. The director comes to the audience not in a wry cameo or as a sardonic emcee but as a deliberately backgrounded force to the story he is about to tell.
But if text crawls and “based on a true story” conceits represent a departure for the director, the contradiction of his on-screen appearance, unseen yet the only object in frame, is a precursor to a movie that does not set aside Hitchcock’s wildest techniques so much as it sublimates them into an ostensibly straightforward work. The first shot proper is an extremely canted angle of the Stork Club, a ritzy New York den, the glamour of its name rendered off and strange by the tilt of the camera. Inside, Hitchcock makes an immediate beeline over the heads of the “important” people in the club to hone in on the house band bassist, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), whose tired face undercuts the glitz of the ballroom with labor fatigue. However well-off the clientele of the place may be, it’s immediately clear that this man barely makes enough from keeping the people entertained to muster up the energy to even come in for work.
Indeed, Manny lives so paycheck-to-paycheck that he and his wife, Rose (Vera Miles), worry about how they can come up with $300 for her wisdom teeth surgery. But when Manny goes to borrow money from her life insurance policy to cover the cost, he is instead arrested when the office workers finger him as the man who recently robbed the place. Things quickly spiral out of control as police obtain dubiously reliable witnesses who insist he is the robber and catch him out in a writing sample where a misspelled word links him to the perpetrator. Hitchcock films the steady progression of the penal system with similarly boilerplate transitions; with no music to guide emotions, shots cut forward with little more than light dissolves, and shot patterns regularly stress plain, distanced and ostensibly objective views of people and places.
With this normal, unremarkable aesthetic as a foundation, however, Hitchcock can make the occasional flourish resound far more than a simple POV shot or a close-up might in one of his other films, which teem with them. The scene of Manny in the insurance office is rendered immediately tense by POV shots of the teller intensely glancing at the man as he waits in line, and a shot of him reaching into his jacket for Rose’s policy is shown in an extreme close-up that seems to happen at half-speed, plunging the quotidian act of Manny’s visit into nerve-wracking suspense on behalf of the woman who is sure that he is the robber. The preponderance of close-ups that capture the perspective of those who identify Manny at once reflect their nervousness but also their unreliability. Working with nothing more than cautious glances, they draw suspiciously firm conclusions.
The wrong man premise propels many a Hitchcock film, but typically the director relies on private forces and clandestine schemers to pile on paranoia into wild explosions of internal conflict. But here the “villains” are normal citizens and reasonable police officers representing the rule of law, and, as such, the film cannot believably attain the kinds of catharsis that mark films like North by Northwest. And if the direction relies on scaled back technique to fuse docurealism with Hitchcock’s usual brand of Expressionistic melodrama, it is joined by the most naturalistic acting to grace a Hitch film. Fonda does not get to vent Manny’s frustrations and fears because Manny does not go on the lam to clear his name and instead must endure a legal system that assures him up and down that an innocent man has nothing to fear. Even as circumstantial evidence allays everyone against him.
But Manny can never wipe the wide-eyed look of terror off his face, no matter how calmly and politely he cooperates. His own POV shots are scattered, usually taking place in cells and courtrooms and all the other places he never thought he would be. There’s something childlike about these shots, which manifest the complete fright behind his defeated exterior. That at least provides some form of outlet, at least for the audience, and it’s one that Rose doesn’t get. As the social implications of the accusations hit home, Rose goes catatonic, aware that even a not-guilty verdict can never fully restore things, can never prevent people from second-guessing her husband out of lingering bias. The Wrong Man may be, by Hitchcock’s standards, a sedate picture, but it is Rose’s maddening, and perhaps true, belief that there will never be a complete escape from the situation that makes it one of the master’s most disturbing films.