Friday, March 18, 2022

Hitchcock's "The Wrong Man": Realism versus Drama

Alfred Hitchcock made no secret of the fact that he was fond of stories based on the “wrong man” motif. Most famously he used it in the 1959 comic thriller North by Northwest, in which a bland businessman (Cary Grant, of course) is mistaken for someone else, a man who poses a serious threat to a cadre of evildoers. While desperately insisting he knows nothing about the nefarious plot that’s afoot, he is drugged, chased, shot at, and otherwise harassed by the baddies, right up until the ultimate happy ending. Hitchcock biographers have a field day discussing their subject in terms of his belief that human beings are just one small step away from being implicated for something they haven’t done.

 There is in fact a Hitchcock film titled The Wrong Man.  It was released in 1956, with Henry Fonda in the central role and Vera Miles as his wife. The expected Hitchcock cameo comes at the film’s very beginning, when the director himself appears in silhouette, explaining that this film is unique in his canon for being closely based on true events. So deliberately does the script follow the actual “wrong man” story of Christopher Emmanuel "Manny" Balestrero that the film is sometimes referred to as a docudrama. The question is: does this adherence to literal truth enhance or detract from Hitchcock’s particular cinematic gifts?

 Fonda plays a jazz bass player with a steady gig at Manhattan’s then-famous Stork Club. He’s also a devoted family man who loves his wife and is a hero to his two sons. When his loving spouse reveals she’s going to need expensive dental work, he tries to cash in her life insurance policy, only to be fingered by several office workers convinced he’s the man who has twice robbed them at gunpoint. Poor Manny can’t seem to catch a break: storekeepers all over his Jackson Heights neighborhood identify him as the robber who’s been preying on them, and so  he’s dragged off to jail. Meanwhile, of course, the tension within his family accelerates, to the point where wife Rose suffers a serious mental breakdown and needs to be hospitalized. Even when a competent attorney comes to represent Manny,  there’s no relief: two of three witnesses who could clear him of the charges against him have died, and the third can’t be found. It’s only when the actual robber is fortuitously caught in the act that his nightmare (sort of) ends.

 Well, this was reality for one very unlucky man. Which doesn’t mean that his story holds much excitement for the moviegoer. As Manny’s plight got sadder and sadder, I started checking my watch. Fonda’s acting is highly credible, but watching someone suffer—with no wit, no poetry, no lesson learned—was not necessarily how I wanted to spend my evening. Filmgoers back in 1956 apparently felt the same way about this film, though a few intellectual types like Jean-Luc Godard have since given it high praise.

 By way of contrast, Hitchcock shot Saboteur in 1942. This story of an innocent man (Bob Cummings) suspected of bombing the defense plant in which he works plays nicely on the paranoia of the World War II era.  His flight from the law drives him from L.A. through the deserts of the Southwest to New York City, where the climax takes place at (and on) the Statue of Liberty. Romance of course creeps into the story. The bad guys are really bad, though it remains unclear exactly what they’re trying to accomplish, and why their ranks include society dowager types. Implausible, sure. But lots of fun.



  1. Hiya Beverly, Good piece, I enjoyed reading it PLUS, I really enjoyed,”The Wrong Man.” I thought Fonda was really terrific. I actually felt his tension. Sometimes, in real life, endless simple things keep going wrong (NOT related to a murder) and you just can’t figure it out or make it stop. Best, Bob. PS I had a BIG smile on my face while watching your “Graduate” presentation-Why? Because YOUR filing cabinets in the background were the same 1950’s ones I have in my den. Love ‘‘em too much to modernize my filing system. Peace.

  2. Thanks, as always, Bob. As for my file cabinets, I'm glad you like them, but I wish my audience hadn't gotten such a glimpse of my messy office!