Wrong Man, The (1957): Hitchcock’s Most Underestimated Film, Starring Henry Fonda and Vera Miles

Lacking any sense of humor or comic relief, The Wrong Man might be the bleakest of Hitchcock’s films, presenting a deliberately stark and grim probing of a man wrongfully accused of murder.

Factually-based, the film creates its drama from a known New York City case, demonstrating along the way the director’s consistent preoccupation with the themes of chance, probability, and routine.

Our Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

Though most critics do not, I consider “The Wrong Man” to be one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces (still under-appreciated), whose significance goes beyond being the film that inaugurated a series of acknowledged masterpieces, beginning with “Vertigo” in 1958, continuing with “North By Northwest” and “Psycho in 1959 and 1960, respectively, and culminating with “the Birds,” in 1963.  It’s no coincidence that all five films have the narrative structure of a nightmare (of one sort or another), that they all deal with mental breakdown and personal disintegration, and that most of their protagonists are males.

In his first and only performance for Hitchcock, Henry Fonda is cast as Manny Balestrero, a family man who plays stand-up bass at the Queens nightclub, the Stork Club.  Although he doesn’t have much money, he lives modestly together with his devoted wife, Rose (Miles). When she complains of dental pains, Manny decides to borrow against her life insurance policy (their debts have already piled too high) in order to pay for medical treatment.

Although he makes a practice of picking horses in the race section of the newspaper, he never dares to bet on them even though a major win might get solve his financial problems.

The morning Manny goes to the insurance office, the office’s female employees identify him as the man who had robbed them previously. Later that night, he is arrested at the Stork Club. After being identified by a number of witnesses, Manny is interrogated at the police station.  Unfortunately, he makes a nervous mistake in a handwriting test, misspelling the word drawer as draw, the same error made on the robber’s ransom note, whereupon, he’s fingerprinted, photographed, and imprisoned.

Finally released on bail, Manny is reunited with Rose and hires defense attorney Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle). But Manny can’t find any witnesses to offer an alibi, and his chances of acquittal are dim.  Meanwhile, Rose begins to crack down under the pressure and is no longer able to deal with her husband’s trial and defense. Although legal justice is ultimately served, Manny’s family must pay a considerable price for his freedom.

Having become accustomed to the lighter, more commercial tone of such films as “To Catch a Thief,” “Rear Window,” and “The Trouble With Harry,” the public was taken aback when they viewed the bleak, hopeless, Kafkaesque tone of “The Wrong Man.”  Not surprisingly, the film was a commercial disappointment, one of the few in Hitchcock’s long and viable career.

Basing the film on incidents occurring to a real-life Queens bass player, in the name of authenticity, Hitchcock shoots in some of the actual locations. As usual, he pays the utmost attention to details and procedural terms, such as the suspect’s interrogation, even they seems routine and tedious.  Hitchcock also emphasizes the emotional pain and mental torture experienced by Rose.

At the conclusion of the film, when Manny’s double is caught by the shopkeeper, the thief claims, “I haven’t done anything. I have a wife and kids waiting for me at home,” which were the very same words Manny had used at the start. In other words, there’s doubt whether the man apprehended is the right man.  As Donald Spoto pointed out, as spectators, we know nothing of the new suspect except that he attempts an armed robbery, but it’s not clear whether he had committed the initial robbery for which Manny was arrested.  There’s always the possibility (the chance) that the story is circular, namely, that another wrong man is apprehended.

The nearly documentary style, gray visuals (the film was shot in black and white) and the predominantly dark tone all contribute to the making of the most somber work in Hitchcock’s career and one of the bleakest movies in American film history, told by Hitchcock in an uncompromising mode that lacks harsh cynicism, sentimental melodrama, or macabre humor.

Though Fonda had played other innocent victims and wrongly accused men before (“Let Us Live,” “You Only Live Once”), “The Wrong Man” is a different kind of movie, one in which the anti-hero is simpler, more naive, and not entirely comprehending of his (or his wife’s for that matter) situation.

That said, Fonda’s performance is superb.  As one critic noted, “Fonda has a subtle capacity for conveying mute, below the surface, suffering, and his reaction to the news, after his exoneration that his wife had been sent to a mental home, idealy revealed this quality in him.”

And there are some nice visual touches, as the fusion of the face of the real offender, the wright man, with that of Fonda, the wrong man.

Actors who appear in the film but are not credited, include Harry Dean Stanton, Werner Klemperer, Tuesday Weld, Patricia Morrow, Bonnie Franklin, and Barney Martin.

Weld and Franklin made their film debuts as two giggly girls answering the door, when the Balestreros are seeking witnesses to prove his innocence.

Real Life Figures

The real O’Connor (1909–1992) was a former N.Y. State Senator at the time of the trial, and later became the district attorney of Queens County, (New York City), the president of the N.Y. City Council and an appellate-court judge.

Rose Balestrero (1910–1982) died in Florida at the age of 72.

End Note:

Hitchcock had originally intended to be seen in his cameo as a customer walking into the Stork Club, but later on, he decided to edit himself out.

Cast

Christopher Emmanuel Balestreo (Henry Fonda)

Rose Balestreo (Vera Miles)

Mrs. Balestreo (Esther Minciotti)

Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle)

Lieutenant Bowers (Harold J. Stone).

 

Credits

Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Associate Producer: Herbert Coleman

Screenplay: Maxwell Anderson and Angus McPhail, based on Maxwell Anderson’s “The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestreo

Camera: Robert Burks

Production design: Paul Sylbert and William L. Kuehl

Music: Bernard Herrmann

Editing: George Tomasini

Technical consultant: Frank O’Connor, District Attorney of Queens County