February 9, 2016
The Wrong Man was promoted as Alfred Hitchcock’s first film based on a true story, and the director went to great lengths to secure its authenticity. To shoot the story of Manny Balestrero, who was falsely accused of robbing a life insurance company, Hitchcock shot the film on location in NYC, and cast supporting parts with many of the actual participants in the case. The movie strives for “reality”, and much of it plays as a heightened kind of docudrama, focused through Balestrero’s POV as he is arrested, processed, and put to trial. Manny’s world of Manhattan night clubs and his Jackson Heights home shrinks to the space between his shoes on the ground of his jail cell, seen with impressive clarity on the new Warner Archive Blu-ray. Manny’s resemblance to a hold-up artist has undone the life he had built over forty-three years, as his wife suffers a nervous breakdown from the stress. For no reason at all, a void has opened up and swallowed him whole.
The screenplay by Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail was based on a 1953 LIFE magazine article by Herbert Brean, “A Case of Identity”, which laid out Balestrero’s story. A steady bass player at Manhattan’s Stork Club, with a wife named Rose (Vera Miles) and two children, he had a penchant to play the horses but no debilitating vices. Needing money to help pay for his wife’s dental work, Manny went to his life insurance company to see if he could borrow money off of the policy. While there, a few employees become convinced that Manny is a dead ringer for the man who previously held up their office. They call the cops and Manny becomes the prime suspect. Then a handwriting sample sort of matches, and more witnesses give positive IDs. The case seems insurmountable until he is saved by intrepid grocery owners who capture the real thief, Charles J. Daniell, who soon confesses to be the real purveyor of the Jackson Heights heists. But Rose cannot handle the stress of the trial, and suffers a nervous breakdown. She is moved to a psychiatric facility, and remains there at the end of the article, though the film has a more qualified happy ending.
Brean described the evening of the arrest as having “the somnambulistic quality of a bad dream” that, “became a nightmare.” The film hews closely to Brean’s text, from the tone to the performance style. Henry Fonda plays Balestrero as something of an ashen sleepwalker, paralyzed by fear into zombiedom. Brean writes that “Balestrero is a timid man, by his own admission afraid of his own shadow. He has never been in a fight in his life, never carried a weapon, never been arrested, never even received a traffic ticket. As the net of evidence tightened, his mind spun and he did not know what to do or say. ‘When things happen like that and you’re innocent’, he has said since, ‘you want to shout and scream but you can’t. I don’t know how many ways I tried to say to them I was innocent. They acted as if I was guilty and wanted me to say so.”
After the police officers walk him from the front door into the police car, the film’s POV becomes severely restricted, Fonda getting suffocated by the law. While in the car, Hitchcock and DP Robert Burks have Balestrero looking right and left, confronted with extreme close-ups of the arresting officers, their impassive mugs impossible to read. While their faces obscure most of the frame, in one shot the blurry silhouette of his wife Rose (Vera Miles) is visible, indicative of his past world that will now be left behind. Hitchcock said “I enjoyed making this film because, after all, that is my greatest fear — fear of the police.” The famous story goes that as a six-year-old, his father sent him to the police station with a note. He had apparently committed some sin, because the cop locked him in jail for five minutes, with little Hitchcock unaware of the reason why, or if he would ever get out. Whether it’s apocryphal or not, it compactly conveys the sense of free-floating terror that motivates many of Hitchcock’s heroes, their mistaken identities or fractured psyches. Through incompetence or animus the police are able to take your life away. You can see the personality draining out of Balestrero the further he is pushed through the penal system. And already a quiet man, he seems to become stiller, in a permanent state of stunned silence.
Hitchcock told American Cinematographer that “I want it to look like it had been photographed in New York in a style unmistakably documentary.” He shot on a number of real locations from Balestrero’s story, including his home in Jackson Heights, the Stork Club where he worked, the 110th and Roosevelt Avenue police stations, Ridgewood Felony Court, and the actual courtroom used for Manny’s trial at Queens Felony Court. The Greenmont Sanitarium in Ossining, NY, where Rose Balestrero was sent following her breakdown, is used as a setting for the final third of the film, with Rose’s real nurses hired as extras. Now, as scrupulous as Hitchcock is as at researching the events of the story, at no point does it feel like it is presented in documentary style. There are too many composed shots, including the POV material which crops out most of the world outside Manny’s eyes. Hitchcock is too interested in getting inside Balestrero’s head to stick to an objective reporting of the facts, instead conveying the existential crisis of the Balestrero family. For Manny the world outside the prison has been cropped out, but for Rose her whole life has been blotted out. Her psychiatrist says, “She’s living in another world from hours…a frightening landscape that could be on the dark side of the moon.”
Henry Fonda had a personal connection to this material. His second wife was Frances Ford Seymour, who he married in 1936, and with whom he had two children: Peter and Jane. Frances suffered from severe depression, and took her own life at the age of 42, in 1950. Fonda biographer Devin McKinney reads the film as a “transfer of anxiety from himself [Manny’s] to his wife. The film’s ‘personal’ element passes from Hitchcock to Fonda, our focus from the director’s passive observation to the character’s encounter with his wife’s depression.” Hitchcock wasn’t happy with this transition, telling Francois Truffaut that “The first weakness was the long interruption in the man’s story in order to show how the wife was gradually losing her mind.” But this transition is one of the film’s great artistic strengths, the terror not isolated or controllable in Manny but spreading outward. Rose starts laughing when all of Manny’s alibis turn up dead, their lives turned into a cosmic joke. She soon shuts down emotionally, convinced the world is conspiring against her family. The terrifying part is that there is no conspiracy, it is simply an average everyday mistake that has evacuated meaning from her life. There is nothing left to believe in, so she disappears inside herself. The pain on Fonda’s face flickers with recognition.