The Wrong Man (1956): Henry Fonda The Most Sympathetic of Victims

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I never grew up watching reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but there’s kind of a ubiquitous aura about them. The man himself — the entirety of his portly physique — comes out of the shadows into a family’s living room to narrate some ghastly or unseemly crime with a droll sense of humor. The show ran from 1955 to 1965 becoming a wildly popular cultural touchstone, and it’s easy to see how The Wrong Man (1956) might have fit into this lineage.

Hitchcock was normally a walking cameo, providing a wink-wink to the audience as he pulled the strings from behind the camera. Here he is also a spokesperson assuring his audience every word of the following story is true though it plays stranger than fiction.

What becomes immediately apparent is the New York milieu. It’s unadorned and if it’s themes and star bring to mind Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men with Henry Fonda, then the world itself has the kind of simple humanity of Paddy Chayefsky. And this is a Hitchcock movie, mind you, but the cinematography by Robert Burks is gorgeous in its stark black & white tones. It helps to maintain this suggested sense of concrete realism.

We open on the bustling Stork Club — it’s a real place — and there “Manny” Balestero (Fonda) plays bass as part of the house band. He’s not rich by any means, but he makes an honest wage going home to his wife (Vera Miles) after the dancing is done. Their life together is humble but full of love and decency. They raise two rambunctious boys, and he promises to give them music lessons.

His life is preoccupied with the kind of familial responsibilities we all understand. His wife has some dental work that needs to be done — it’s expensive so he needs to check on their insurance policy — and he plans to check in on his mother. It’s rather unextraordinary. But this is what makes it unusual.

While Manny only looks to check on his wife’s insurance policy, Hitchcock frames it like a bank robbery. Except the gun coming out of his pocket is the paper policy. The teller walks away, her face racked with concern as she consorts with her superior. A holdup hasn’t been committed, and yet it sure feels like it. In a stunning shot, the superior peers past her shoulder and catches sight of Manny perfectly oblivious. It’s the beginning of trouble.

Soon Manny is I.D.’d. He’s not trying to hide anything. Some policemen (including Harold J. Stone) show up on his doorstep to take him in for questioning. They assuage any concerns he might have: “It’s nothing for an innocent man to worry about. It’s the fella who’s done something wrong who has something to worry about.” And so he goes along with their line of interrogation because he naively believes in the veracity of justice.

What becomes more apparent is the fallibility of eyewitness testimony and the coincidence found in circumstantial evidence. I am reminded of the work done by the likes of Elizabeth Loftus and of confirmation bias. Of how misleading information often molds responses. Two ladies pick Manny out of a lineup which doesn’t bode well. Then, whether or not it’s uncanny, his handwriting also looks close enough to an incriminating stick-up note.

However, more so than any of the implications on law and the criminal justice system, The Wrong Man is such a powerful exemplification of Hitchock’s directorial talents. It’s devilishly simple on the exterior, and yet he does so much to make us totally cognizant of Fonda’s condition. It goes beyond mere osmosis. Thanks to Hitchock, we live Fonda’s point of view.

When he’s first approached, then, again, when he finds himself actually booked and imprisoned, Hitchcock does something deceptively simple — taking on Fonda’s eyes. He looks around the confines of the space — to the sink in the corner, up at the ceiling, and we are there with him. We forget about a camera — that there is visual trickery going on — and we fall into Manny’s predicament sitting right there by his side.

We recognize the shame of being imprisoned — to be robbed of your dignity even if you manage to be exonerated. He’s taken through all the paces of justice in all its drab mundanity. It takes all the sheen out of law and order; this isn’t Elliot Ness or Perry Mason. This is common, everyday people grinding through their daily lives.

Manny watches as they do their jobs around him with a kind of detached efficiency. He has no idea what he’s caught up in nor does he think about trying to speak up on his behalf. The machine is moving too fast, and he’s already reticent. Could it be it’s hopeless? Instead, as he’s handcuffed, he watches the footfalls of his fellow prisoners being led to the van. What’s he supposed to do? Worst of all, he isn’t able to notify his wife, and he always calls her if he’s out late. He’s that kind of man.

the wrong man

The resulting storyline involves a valiant lawyer (Anthony Quayle), who agrees to take his case. However, every possible alibi proves a dead-end. Manny’s wife, once the image of so much jovial warmth, has become delusional in the lead up to his trial. She can’t take the strain.

Finally, we are in the throes of the court proceedings. Manny holds his rosary under his desk and later the cross hangs suspended up above him. It’s hard to take it any other way but that of a symbol: here is a man being falsely accused crucified for something he did not do. Like I Confess, this is not only a tale of a man put on trial unjustly, it’s the tribulations of a devout man of faith.

True to form, The Wrong Man also reflects the most perceptive and honest of courtrooms. As Manny sits there, his fate in the balance, he glances around to see all the various side conversations going on — for other people the proceedings only hold mild curiosity — but again, Hitchcock has made us totally empathize with Manny.

After his mother implores him to pray to God, he prepares for work as per usual, but then takes a moment to heed her advice. Looking at the picture of Jesus on the wall, he begins to whisper his prayers under his breath. The visuals start to superimpose. There is Manny — that is Henry Fonda’s face — and the mug of the wanted man comes into view and meets him in the middle of the screen. All of sudden, he’s got a bit of luck. It’s the fortuitous key to the whole horrid mess. Christians would believe this is Providence.

The ending hardly matters nor does the fact that it is a “true story.” It’s the impression the movie leaves on us casting the greatest shadow. Hank Fonda is the most sympathetic of victims. However, it’s Alfred Hitchcock who intuitively understands how to augment his plight by making it viscerally resonate frame after frame. Without the bells and whistles he grew accustomed to, he shows he’s still capable of making a superior film.

4/5 Stars

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