4 stars out of 4. Forgotten experiment and essential for understanding Hitchcock.
The Wrong Man is one of the most interesting in Hitchcock’s entire canon, for being derived from a true story and adapting a realistic tone that is completely foreign to Hitchcock. What this does is effectively drop Hitchcockian themes into the world of the emerging New Wave and desire for gritty realism that most often utilizes sprawling urban metropolises.
He even refuses his traditional cameo, and instead presents us with a statement of this film’s difference and firm grounding in reality. The film is entirely based on the true story of a New York musician who is mistook for a man who has held up and robbed several business over the past year. Manny Balestrero is slowly set up and consumed by the police’s efforts to capture this criminal, and it effectively tears his entire life apart.
What makes this all the more effective is the fact that Balestrero is played by Henry Fonda, who can speak more with his face than with dialogue. His Manny is a good man, who tries and does everything to the best of his abilities and a man who struggles to maintain both his family and a sense of dignity. It is these two elements that become so distraught and tainted by his accusation by the police.
Never before or since has guilt been such a prevalent part of a Hitchcock film. The guilt is so deeply felt that it could be visually represented among all the dark shadows crowding the sets, starkly filmed in widescreen black and white and utilizing real New York locations to great effect. It in fact feels at times as if Hitchcock had been allowed to roam free in a Kazan film, to shake loose of his studio bound ways in almost a sort of self-challenge.
The Wrong Man has some definite ties to I Confess (1952); in the phenomenally strong lead performances, low key B&W cinematography, relatively straight scripts with little to no overt Hitchcockian flourishes but The Wrong Man is a different beast because it is also an uncharacteristically (for Hitch) emotional story that in ways precedes the impact of Vertigo. This primarily manifests itself in the story of Manny’s wife and her descent into madness over a mistaken sense of guilt. Vera Miles gives a wonderful performance that displays some of what Hitch must have obviously saw in her and how her intended performance in Vertigo might have been.
However the film is also chock full of real life touches that only add to and enhance the oppressive sense of doom. The characters tell the story through their increasingly bleak outlooks on Manny’s impending conviction, and in the end it is only prayer that Manny has left in the world.
The score by Bernard Herrmann is perfectly sparse, and very ominous in its jazzy style which fits exactly with the broodingly oppressive New York surroundings. The film also functions as an interesting time capsule of what the city looked like at the time, a place that can now only be accessed in the works of the past.
The Wrong Man is one of the most overlooked of Hitchcock’s work, and probably the finest of his 1950’s films that stray from his established formula. It builds upon the more simplistic I Confess all the while establishing and setting the stage for Vertigo. This is not a happy film, nor should it be. It is a harrowing portrait of what it must be like to be the wrong man accused of someone else’s crimes. This time there is no escape, no man on the run, no grand adventure leading to a final denouement where everything turns out right in the end. Here Hitchcock’s hero is absolutely caught and locked up with no chance of escape. Small wonder why it didn’t sit well with 1950’s audiences. This fulfilled Hitch’s contract with Warner Bros. and he then returned to Paramount.
EDITIONS: Warner issued a DVD as part of their Hitchcock Signature Collection in 2004, featuring a nice little documentary and trailer. The transfer is good on the whole, but some scenes feature some not too pretty encoding that manifests as digital noise instead of presenting film grain. Then there are several scenes with damage and very occasional fading. Otherwise it’s very serviceable until you get to the framing. The film was released in 1956 when the widescreen format was fully taking hold among cinemas worldwide. It is therefore hard to know exactly what ratio was intended, especially as the US and Europe had differing preferred ratios. The DVD uses a 1.78:1 framing optimized for 16×9 TVs, whereas the theatrical would have been either 1.66:1 or 1.85:1. Judging from comparisons and articles, it seems that the film was composed for 1.66:1 and that the DVD is indeed a crop. It works fine, but in comparison to 1.66 framings important information is lost or cropped. The LD was open matte 1.33:1, which would be interesting to see for comparison.
Audio is a faithful 1.0 mono track on a standard compressed Dolby Digital track. This needs an HD revisit for maximum impact. Hopefully Warner comes around to doing all their Hitchcock titles soon, with Strangers on a Train and Dial M for Murder already approaching release. (Of course, they lost the rights to Foreign Correspondent which has long been rumored to be an upcoming Criterion release.)
NOTE: There is a reason why Scorsese refers back to this constantly. It is highly influential to him and this becomes obvious with it (and I Confess) dealing heavily in Catholic guilt.