It’s easy to see how Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 film ‘The Wrong Man’ tends to get overlooked in the overall context of his career as in the years surrounding it In the few years he was churning out classics like ‘Strangers on a Train’, ‘Rear Window’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘North By Northwest’ and ‘Psycho’ so it faced some stiff competition. But ‘The Wrong Man’ is a quality film and would probably be more highly regarded than it is if it hadn’t been done by Hitchcock.
Based on a true story, Henry Fonda stars as Manny Balestrero, a musician who despite struggling to make ends meet has a relatively happy home life with his wife (Vera Miles) and children. That is upended when he is arrested by police as an armed robber after being identified by several people. The fact that he’s innocent seems irrelevant as a series of small but nightmarish factors pile up against him, taking a toll on not only him but his wife.
There are several striking features about TWM. Probably the first one is how Hitchcock eschews his usual cameo during the film to give an introduction explaining that the film is based on true events. It’s a rather disconcerting start, and perhaps a tacit admission that Hitchcock wasn’t sure critics and the public would believe he could successfully be associated with a grim, documentary style film.
The greatest strength of TWM is how effectively it captures the horror of being a suspect in a criminal case and then incarcerated, as Manny is. Unlike many prison/legal films which demonstrate this through obvious measures like brutish prison guards, Hitchcock utilises realistic minute detail to demonstrate the suffering Manny goes through, and it works exceptionally well.
Especially strong are the scenes where Manny is being interrogated by the police. While the policemen are ‘just doing their job’ the feeling of smug superiority they have over Manny in the belief he’s the guilty party dominates. It makes one feel enormous sympathy and frustration for Manny in how he’s browbeaten into having to submit to this demeaning interrogation where even though he’s not guilty, he’s made to feel guilty.
Another fine scene is where Manny visits the insurance firm which has been robbed and several of the employees are convinced incorrectly that he’s the one who robbed them. It is fascinating seeing these employees in this and later scenes convince themselves that the wrong man is the culprit – is it because of peer pressure, paranoia, delusion or something else?
In a way TWM is a rather atypical Hitchcock film as it doesn’t have many of his trademark directorial touches and is based on being as true-to-life as possible including the use of real New York backgrounds. And on this level it’s quite effective, with the realistic feel of the film quite impressive for a 1956 Hollywood film, let alone a Hitchcock film.
As much as Manny is impacted by the saga, it’s his wife Rose (Vera Miles) who suffers the most. Lacking the strength to deal with the injustice of her husband’s arrest and the bad luck and circumstances that prevent him from clearing his name, she has a nervous breakdown and still hasn’t recovered even after Manny’s name is cleared (a postscript is rather clumsily added on saying that she recovered a couple of years after the film’s events in real life). Even more so than Manny, she is the film’s representation of the damage the criminal justice system can do.
It’s easy to see why TWM wasn’t as successful as many other Hitchcock films were from this period. It’s not a crowd-pleaser on any level and it’s rather dour to watch at times. But overall it’s an impressive work and another demonstration of what a great filmmaker Hitchcock was.