The Wronger Man

I’d always meant to watch John Brahm’s 1939 criminal justice melo LET US LIVE, and now I know why I held off — I got a chance to watch it streaming from Bologna in a gleaming fresh copy, better than any grungy old version I might have tracked down.

Henry Fonda plays an innocent cabby wrongly convicted of armed robbery and murder. Maureen O’Sullivan is his bride-to-be, frantically trying to prove his innocence before he goes to the chair. The movie anticipates Hitchcock’s THE WRONG MAN in plot terms, but Brahm gives it all a glossy Hollywood expressionism more showy than Hitch’s gloomy death march.

How to account for Brahm’s fluctuating visual style — here in this relatively early work (he’d done his remake of BROKEN BLOSSOMS in the UK, and three B pictures for Columbia before this one) his arresting use of chiaroscuro and violently off-centre framing is fully developed. In later films it comes and goes. It could be the amount of prep time, the skills of the cinematographer he was working with, or the amount of enthusiasm he could muster.

(Brahm films to see: THE LODGER and HANGOVER SQUARE, THE LOCKET, GUEST IN THE HOUSE, his Twilight Zones and some of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes. He never had what you’d call the best scripts to work with.)

One cut to Fonda’s face made Fiona gasp, exactly as happened in THE LODGER with Laird Cregar. Remember Billy Wilder’s line about a close-up being like a trump card in a game of bridge, to be used sparingly where it’ll really count? But how many times has a simple cut to a character, already established as being present in the scene, taken your breath away?

My new ambition — if I can get to direct one more thing, I’d like to make that happen. I know the trick — the face or expression must be new and arresting, and the face appear in an unexpected part of the screen in an unusual, off-centre composition. Now somebody give me a million bucks before I forget.

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