Wrong Man, The (1956): Hitchcock’s Most Underestimated Film, Noir Thriller, Starring Henry Fonda, Vera Miles, Anthony Quayle

Deliberately lacking any sense of humor or comic relief, The Wrong Man might be the bleakest feature in of Hitchcock’s output, presenting a deliberately stark and grim probe into the ordeal involving an innocent man wrongfully accused of murder.

 

The Wrong Man
The-Wrong-Man-poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

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 help resolve 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 flops 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, especially in the last reel.

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,” thus echoing the very same words that Manny had used at the start of the film.

In other words, there’s clearly doubt whether the man apprehended is the “right” man–he could just as easily be the “next wrong” man.

As the scholar Donald Spoto has pointed out, the spectators know nothing of the new suspect, except that he has attempted an armed robbery, but it’s not clear whether he had committed the initial robbery for which Manny had been arrested.  There’s always the possibility (the chance, the hand of fate) that the story is circular, a vicious circle, that yet 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.

As the most detailed procedural, The Wrong Man is told by Hitchcock in an uncompromisingly realistic mode, one that facile cynicism, sentimental melodrama, or macabre humor.

Among many achievements, this movie should be credited as presented realistically the gradual breakup of a marriage and the agonizing, step-by-step process of nervous breakdown.

Though Fonda had played other innocent victims and wrongly accused men before (“Let Us Live,” Fritz Lang’s “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–ordeal.

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, ideally revealed this quality in him.”

And there are some striking visual touches, as the fusion of the face of the real offender, the “right” man, with that of Fonda, the “wrong” man.

The re are excellent actors in the film, who are not not credited (or not credited enough), including Harry Dean Stanton, Werner Klemperer, Tuesday Weld, Patricia Morrow, Bonnie Franklin, and Barney Martin.

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

Esther Minciotti, an actress of Italian origin, emigrated to the U.S. and settled in New York, where she performed on Broadway in some plays. On screen, she appeared in only eight films, between 1949 and 1956. Her best known roles are as Theresa Piletti, Ernest Borgnine’s mother, in Delbert Mann’s 1955 Oscar winner Marty, and as Henry Fonda’s mother in Hitchcock’s 1956, The Wrong Man.

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, 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. Manny Balestrero outlived his wife by 16 years, dying in North Carolina aged 88.

Reel/Real Impact:

Chris and Rose’s son, Gregory, went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and has become the CEO of the Project Management Institute.

Chris Balestrero sued the city for false arrest, asking $500,000, but accepting a settlement of just $7,000. He earned $22,000 from the film, which was applied to repaying loans for Rose’s care.

A street is named “Manny ‘The Wrong Man’ Balestrero Way” at 73rd Street and 41st Avenue in Jackson Heights, New York. The street is not far from the former real-life Balestrero home.

End Note: No Cameo

Hitchcock had originally intended to be seen in his customary cameo, here as a customer walking into the Stork Club, but later on, for the sake of authenticity, he decided to edit himself out. Here he appears only in silhouette in darkened studio, just before the opening credits roll, announcing that the story is true.

Many scenes were filmed in Jackson Heights, the neighborhood where Manny lived. Most of the prison scenes were filmed among the convicts in a New York City prison in Queens. The courthouse was located at the corner of Catalpa Avenue and 64th Street in Ridgewood.

Bernard Herrmann composed the soundtrack, as he had for all of Hitchcock’s films from The Trouble with Harry (1955) through Marnie (1964).

It is one of Herrmann’s most subdued scores, and one of the few composed with some jazz elements, set to represent and reinforce Fonda’s appearance as musician in the nightclub scenes.

This was Hitchcock’s final film for Warner, completing a contract that had begun with two features produced for Transatlantic Pictures and released by Warner Brothers, Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949), his first films in Technicolor. After The Wrong Man, Hitchcock returned to Paramount Pictures.

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

Production and distribution: Warner Bros.

Release date: December 22, 1956 (US)

Running time: 105 minutes

Budget $1.2 million

Cast

Henry Fonda as Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero
Vera Miles as Rose Balestrero
Anthony Quayle as Frank O’Connor
Harold J. Stone as Det. Lt. Bowers
Charles Cooper as Det. Matthews
John Hildebrand as Tomasini
Esther Minciotti as Mama Balestrero
Doreen Lang as Ann James
Laurinda Barrett as Constance Willis
Norma Connolly as Betty Todd
Nehemiah Persoff as Gene Conforti
Lola D’Annunzio as Olga Conforti
Werner Klemperer as Dr. Bannay
Kippy Campbell as Robert Balestrero
Robert Essen as Gregory Balestrero
Richard Robbins as Daniel, the “guilty” man