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Hitchapalooza 14: Some Cinema Verite via “The Wrong Man” (1956) July 20, 2009

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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A favorite recurring theme of Htichcock’s is the wrongly accused man on the run – usually they have all sorts of wacky romantic adventures while trying to clear their name and capture the real murderer/spy/whoever that we, the audience, knows is REALLY responsible – we see this formula at work in The 39 Steps, Saboteur, To Catch A Thief, North By Northwest, Frenzy… even somewhat in Strangers On A Train.

In I Confess, Hitchcock played around a tad with making the situation more serious (after all, a priest can’t really be expected to have wacky romantic adventures, at least in 1953 movies – so he doesn’t go on the run, but instead is willing to suffer for someone else’s crimes), but in The Wrong Man, Hitchcock used the true story of a case of mistaken identity to show us the real aftermath of someone wrongly accused: the fear, humiliation, and most of all the powerlessness as Henry Fonda is marched through police procedure, shown to us in every last detail from arrest through arraignment through making bail. This is the most effective sequence of the movie – after we’ve been given enough exposition to see that Fonda is a good husband & father, we share his fear & humiliation & repressed anger as the cops take him in, he’s falsely ID’d, fingerprinted, jailed and seemingly abandoned. This is all shot in a combination of Fonda’s POV and his reactions – to being handcuffed, to the other men around him in the police van, to being marched up in front of assembly line processes like the arraignment where he has NO idea what is going on around him. People have conversations far away – judges, cops, lawyers – are they about him? We are put into Fonda’s shoes as he is pushed/pulled through this process and we feel not only the confusion, but also get the sense of true dread that would go through this character’s mind during it all: what if this is the end? What if he never sees the light of day again all because of this mistake that was totally out of his hands? This is all conveyed through shots of Fonda alone in his cell, the sound of the door clanking shut, the darkness he finds himself in, shots of the cell sink, bars, blank ceiling… mundane things that add up to us, the audience, sharing the character’s inner experience. It’s brilliant film making.

In short, it’s a close & serious examination of the exact same theme that Hitchcock had used (and would use again) as a springboard for light-hearted popcorn movie fare.

Fonda’s wife, played by Vera Miles, suffers a nervous breakdown from the stress of the experience, as well as her own doubts about herself and her husband. It’s a great performance that adds a lot of emotion and humanity to the matter-of-fact documentary qualities found in other parts of the film, although her story becomes more of an afterthought as Fonda’s case begins to develop and move towards resolution. In the real life case, the wife’s suffering was even more profound, something lightened by the studio over Hitchcock’s objections, but it’s clear that Hitchcock is far more interested in the story of an innocent man attempting to clear himself than the story of a wife breaking down. Still, Miles’ performance is wonderful and only adds to the speculation over what sort of a Judy she might have made in Vertigo before she got preggers and the role went to Kim Novak.

Another similarity to I Confess are the Catholic themes that run through the film – we learn of Fonda’s faith when rosary beads are among the things in his pockets emptied at the police station. His wife’s guilt and self-blame for the entire situation reeks of Catholic guilt. Ultimately when Fonda has nearly lost faith, his mother tells him to pray and when he does, the close-up on his face in prayer is superimposed over the developing exterior shot of the true criminal about to commit the crime that will prove Fonda’s innocence… are prayers being answered? Is it a miracle? When Fonda’s innocence does nothing to help his wife in the mental institution, the nurse informs him that “Miracles take time” even though we’ve basically seen one happen.

It turns out that the film follows the real story of Stork Club musician Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero pretty faithfully, although some evidence of his innocence is left out to build more suspense. And I think any decent defense attorney could point out that if someone robbed an insurance company of $71, why would they return to the exact same office only a few weeks later to borrow money on a life insurance policy with their name and address on it? Someone show them The World’s Dumbest Criminals. But putting that & some dated forensic issues aside, if the point of this movie is to give us, the audience, the true sense of being at the wrong end of a Kafka-esque nightmare, it succeeds admirably.

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