The official story is that Hitchcock, under contract to Paramount, somehow felt that he hadn’t given Warner Bros full satisfaction during his time there, and made THE WRONG MAN for them for free as a sort of parting gift. I have a hard time swallowing that. If Hitch worked for nothing, it must have been because he really wanted to make the film, and he made it at Warners because the story, a true crime narrative “torn from the headlines,” was their property. Fortunately, he was able to take his team with him, including Bernard Herrmann and Robert Burks, as well as Vera Miles, whom he had used on TV and was grooming for stardom.
Sidebar — the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents starring Miles, a grim little number called Revenge, also featuring the mighty Ralph Meeker, is a plainly-told little masterpiece of horror, serving as an illustration of the old adage, “He who seeks revenge should first dig two graves.” In both Revenge and THE WRONG MAN, Vera Miles suffers a breakdown, presented in a harrowing but realistic and un-showy fashion. But ultimately Revenge is a yarn, what Hitch called “an old-fashioned plot,” even if it ends in such a dark place that Hitch, appearing at the end to sum up, is forced to drop all his lugubrious jocularity and more or less apologise for subjecting us to this ordeal.
Hitch shot, but did not use, a cameo appearance for THE WRONG MAN, electing instead to introduce it personally, something he had just started doing on TV. But the High Expressionism of Robert Burks opening frame prepares us for a very different kind of Hitch — the shadow that elongates towards us is quite different from the chubby profile on NBC — and this has a more powerful effect than what Hitch is telling us: his lines about this being a very different kind of suspense thriller seem more like a showman’s come-on than adequate warning of the Bressonian blackjack we’re about to get slugged with.
In THE WRONG MAN, Miles’s depression is triggered by her husband’s arrest for a series of neighbourhood stick-ups (he bears a chance resemblance to the real criminal). Fate conspires to rob him of a demonstrable alibi, and a chain of circumstantial evidence sends him clanking through the machinery of the justice system like an animal on its way to slaughter. The narrative proceeds with the deliberate, chilling pace of a conveyor belt. When Hitch films the police van conveying Fonda to court, it’s under a vast iron bridge, the world cut into mechanical pieces by the shadows of the girders. It suggests prison bars, but even more it calls to mind some vast unfeeling apparatus — and this is the film’s subject.
Fonda’s arrest is notably Kafkaesque: the cops drive him from one neighbourhood store to another, instructing him to enter, alone, walk the length of the store, and then exit. He does so, his perplexity and fear stamping him as suspicious from the moment he appears.
The cops are at once decent, unsensationalized professionals, and immensely cruel. Hitch does not criticize the authorities in anything anyone says, but we notice that Fonda doesn’t get his phone call, isn’t read his rights, and is deliberately thrown off-balance by the detectives, who obviously hope to make him crack. Fonda is such a good citizen that he goes meekly with them from his own doorstep, rather than insisting on telling his wife what’s happened (he hasn’t been formally arrested yet, so there’s nothing official to stop him doing as he pleases).
Hitch apparently found the real-life Manny Balestrero rather undramatic as a character — the man could not express to Hitch what his experiences felt like. I can see how in reality this would have made Balestrero’s plight worse: an inexpressive, emotionally inarticulate man would have had trouble both convincing the cops of his innocence, and reassuring his worried wife. It hardly matters in the movie — Hitch is recreating his own primal scene in its purest form — the terror of inexplicable arrest by the authorities. (Supermodel Jinks Falkenberg and her husband once pranked Hitch by sending a cop to ask for him — never mess with peoples’ phobias! This shit is serious.)
To solve the problem of dramatizing an undramatic man, Hitch worked with semi-regular collaborator Angus MacPhail (perhaps the originator of the term “MacGuffin”) and famed playwright Maxwell Anderson. The low-key but quietly passionate character devised for Fonda suits his performance style perfectly. And Hitch had always wanted to work with Fonda, I think he’s one of the few stars mentioned in Hitch’s 1930s essay, written upon his departure for Hollywood, that he actually got to direct. Gary Cooper and William Powell always eluded him.
First arrest: 1929.
We’ve seen the arrest procedure before, in BLACKMAIL. But there, the hero was a cop and the suspect a thuggish career criminal, well-used to imprisonment. In Hitch’s original ending, we would have seen the process repeated with heroine Anny Ondra, which would have been powerful stuff. But being thrown into the strange rituals of confinement and judgement, seeing it through the eyes of our blameless hero (loving husband, brilliant father), with the most insistent use of extreme POV shots in all Hitchcock, that’s something else.
A witness places her hand on Fonda’s shoulder to identify him, and we see the shoulder as if from Fonda’s own eyes.
As the cops drive Fonda around, we see his POV looking past each of them in turn, left, right, straight ahead, as the free world speeds past, unreachable, outside. Amusingly, this sequence was ripped off with perfect precision by Freddie Francis in THE SKULL: substitute Peter Cushing for Henry Fonda. Of course the effect is different: context is everything in the Hitchcock. The fear we feel (and this film is more genuinely uncomfortable and frightening than anything Hitch had made to date) is all to do with where we are in the story and how we feel about the characters.
In his little cell, Fonda looks around, and we get a succession of banal objects: a wash-basin; the corner of the ceiling — and the simplicity and solidity of everything is hellishly oppressive. Hitch then produces one of his few outright flourishes, a spinning camera that causes Fonda’s head to gyrate giddily about the frame: things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.
Some, like official biographer John Russell Taylor, have remarked on the incongruity of Hitch, who declared “Some make slices of life; I make slices of cake,” doing a substantially location-set (the real Stork Club), documentarist piece of social realism. But there’s nothing incongruous about the experience of watching the film, since it all works so well. The few obvious directorial flourishes are well-chosen and are complimented by a wealth of intelligent detail that doesn’t draw attention to itself. And the whole thing aims at a psychological effect rather than a social one. If Hitch uses a real place or a convincing replica, he does it not to show us what something looks like, but to inflict upon us the emotional impact of the real thing. And it’s all focussed through the central character, who acts as a kind of lens for Hitch’s personal terror, which is thus beamed into the viewer at concentrated strength.
Balestrero’s job as bull fiddle player motivates the jazz-inflected score, which uses sparse instrumentation to create memorable soundscapes of slow anxiety. As always with Hitch, there’s some kind of motif at work, something woven into the narrative, although here it’s a lot more elusive than the two compositions that play key plot roles in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. When we first see Vera Miles with her husband, she says, “Sometimes I’m so frightened waiting for you to come home at night,” — and this is the first hint we get that she is more than normally insecure. The moment is underscored by a series of soft chimes, played on a triangle, which come out of nowhere and initially suggest a carriage clock or a musical doorbell, something diegetic, but are then joined by the double bass and sax. The chimes return later, only once, when Miles loses her mind and strikes her husband with a hairbrush. She retreats to a distant chair and murmurs, “It’s true, Manny, there is something wrong with me. You’ll have to let them put me somewhere.”
Ting. Ting. Ting. Ting.
The effect is chilling because it happens so utterly on cue and thus suddenly seems mechanical — this happens, so you hear this sound — part of the overall impersonal forces pushing Manny towards imprisonment and destruction.
Fiona: “Was this film a terrible flop?”
Me: “It sure was.”
Nevertheless it’s profoundly impressive.
As hairy script guru Phil Parker is always saying, injustice is such a powerful event in our lives from childhood on (“When a child says, ‘This isn’t fair!’ the child can be trusted.” ~ A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS) that it makes a powerful narrative hook. Hitch’s previous nightmare scenarios don’t exploit this as fully as TWM, because in the chase film the unjust suspicions of the authorities are mainly a spur for the character and plot, driving us along to the next situation and preventing the interference of reinforcements. In THE WRONG MAN we get Hitchcock with the mask of entertainer removed, and the story is this: even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayer at night may be crushed by the impersonal forces of the world he lives in.
When Fonda prays, and the real culprit appears before us and is apprehended by heroic storekeepers (how we cheer these plucky citizens!), Hitch pulls off a remarkable coup, foregrounding his Catholicism via a magnificent lengthy dissolve that literally supplants Fonda’s face with that of the actual stick-up artist (this is Hitch’s most Bergmanesque movie!) It’s presented as a miracle, and the beauty of the transition reinforces that. but, unbearably, when Fonda goes to tell Miles that he’s finally a free man, she’s too sunk in depression for it to mean anything. “I was hoping for a miracle,” admits Fonda, ruefully. He’s already had one.
Mental illness, by the way, is something movies nearly always get wrong, if what you’re looking for is either clinical accuracy or emotional insight. There are valid approaches to any subject that are not realistic ones, but most movies have a hard time being even truthful here, and too often demonize the mentally ill in a way that would be considered unacceptable with any other minority. So I applaud THE WRONG MAN’s portrayal of a mostly quiet, desperate slide into confusion and misery, which feels absolutely authentic and beautifully observed. Hitchcock filmed in a real psychiatric hospital with real staff (a rather nice-looking one) and, although the doctor’s description of Miles’ complaint is overly poetic and general, it’s not the dollar-book Freud of PSYCHO.
THE WRONG MAN is a tough watch — maybe the only Hitchcock film to attain this status through strengths rather than weaknesses. It’s intended to be hard on the viewer. All that stuff about it being Hitchcock’s most Catholic film — possibly true, but not an observation that’s necessary to in some way justify the film’s existence, which it sometimes seems to be used for. All that stuff about the oddness of Hitch doing realism — this is psychological realism. This is pure Hitchcock. And it’s a stone-cold masterpiece.
Mr Right Meets Mr Wrong.