Big Screen Berkeley: The Wrong Man, Hitchcock’s gem

The Wrong Man, starring Henry Fonda: one of the least Hitchcockian films of all the famous director’s movies

Though auteur theory was still little more than a glimmer in François Truffaut’s eye, the American public was quite familiar with Alfred Hitchcock by 1956. Perhaps the most recognizable filmmaker since Chaplin, Hitch was a weekly presence in homes from coast to coast via his CBS series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, while theatergoers had made his color remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much a huge commercial success. His career still in the ascendancy, Hitch could choose any project he desired – which perhaps explains why his next project was one of the least Hitchcockian films of them all.

Released on New Year’s Day 1957, The Wrong Man (screening at Pacific Film Archive at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, April 5 as part of the continuing series Alfred Hitchcock: The Shape of Suspense) begins on a deceptive note. In a nod to his small-screen persona, our host introduces the proceedings — but this time the mordant wit and outrageous set pieces are absent. Instead, he tells us quite seriously, what we’re about to see “is a true story – every word of it.”

The Wrong Man, however, is far from a typical ‘just the facts ma’am’ police procedural. Though hewing closely to the story outlined in screenwriter Maxwell Anderson’s bestseller, The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero, the film avoids the law enforcement perspective altogether. In fact, the police come across as rather villainous – or at the very least, uninterested in truth, justice, and the American way.

The real Manny Balestrero lived in Jackson Heights (a lower-middle class neighborhood in Queens) and worked as a bass player in a high-class Manhattan nightclub. Mistaken for a stick-up man by employees of an insurance company, the professional musician spent much of 1953 on a Kafkaesque journey through the American judicial system that damaged both his career and his marriage.

Balestrero is portrayed in The Wrong Man by Henry Fonda — Hollywood’s go-to guy for upright, straight-arrow roles, his presence screaming testament to the injustice we’re about to witness. Anderson’s screenplay establishes that Manny and wife Rose (Psycho’s Vera Miles) are struggling to get by, and this is all the evidence the police need to convince themselves he’s the villain. The case against him bolstered by eyewitness testimony (renowned, of course, for its unreliability), Manny is adequately defended by lawyer Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle, later to prosecute Nazis in the television mini-series QB VII), but his fate is ultimately decided by the same thing that got him in deep in the first place: dumb luck.

Shot in Academy ratio (television’s standard for decades) and in black-and-white, The Wrong Man might be mistaken for a feature-length episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but its big-screen roots are belied by Bernard Herrmann’s brooding, low-key score and Robert Burks’ luminous cinematography. Its verisimilitude easily trumping anything seen in that admittedly excellent series, this film remains one of the director’s hidden gems.

Footnote: the two giggly girls who inform Manny and Rose of the death of a friendly witness are depicted by Tuesday Weld and the recently deceased star of One Day at a Time, Bonnie Franklin.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

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