Alfred Hitchcock makes his cameo at the outset of 1956’s The Wrong Man by stepping into a shadowy soundstage shot and informing the audience that the film they are about to witness is a true story. Everything about this introduction is vital, from the black-and-white to the director’s insistence on the strange things that can happen in reality.
The movie is based on a story Hitch read in Life magazine. “A Case of Identity” was penned by Herbert Brean about Manny Balestrero, a musician falsely accused of robbery. What fascinated Hitchcock was the role coincidence played in the real-life drama. It was a slight nudge to his ostensible obsession with innocence in the land of law and order.
Henry Fonda is Balestrero, a bassist working at New York’s Stork Club. He is a family man, living with his wife Rose (Vera Miles) and their two boys (Kippy Campbell and Robert Essen). The family has some moderate financial difficulties, but there’s nothing out of the ordinary going on. When Rose needs her wisdom teeth out, Manny heads to the insurance office to get money.
The trouble begins when workers at the insurance office identify Balestrero as a man who robbed them on separate occasions. Manny is picked up by police and taken to other eyewitnesses of other robberies committed by the same man. He is also made to copy a note written by the crook, where a simple mistake makes Balestrero look very guilty.
Fonda is excellent as a man making his way through the cold and impersonal justice system. He spends a lot of the picture in a daze, moving from interviews to fingerprinting to court hearings that seem to last mere seconds. He is emotionless as he moves through stores to shopkeepers can identify him.
Along with Fonda’s performance, Hitchcock ensures that the audience feels the indifference of the experience with close camera angles and grim black-and-white. The minimalistic Bernard Herrmann score, coloured with jazz notes to replicate Balestrero’s vocation, adds to the experience by giving no soft comfort.
On top of this, the insistence of the police officers that “the innocent have nothing to worry about” rings throughout The Wrong Man. This same ridiculous concealment is given in modern times by the likes of Homeland Security and their guardians to cover all manner of privacy sins, but what of Manny Balestrero?
Clearly he winds up with plenty to worry about: the ripples of being The Wrong Man leave Fonda’s character adrift, at least temporarily, and the transfer of guilt (or is it purity?) controls Rose. Her depression may have been unavoidable to a certain extent, but where she ends up as the picture closes is certainly resultant of things piling up inside her mind.
In some ways, it could be argued that Rose suffers because she initially doubts her husband’s virtue. As Jean-Luc Godard suggests, her character is “punished for having feared the possibility of something which never happens.” When first met Manny’s circumstances, she says something strange that seems to suggest she doesn’t altogether trust him.
From the outset, Hitchcock is concerned with the notion of innocence slipping away. During the opening credits, he uses dissolves to get rid of people in the Stork Club and focuses on the band where Manny is playing. Everything drifts away from the protagonist, even though he is conventionally blameless, and the costs of being The Wrong Man are precipitous indeed.
Realism was a big concern for Hitchcock and this took him out of his comfort zone somewhat. He shot at locations where events really took place, including the actual psychiatric rest home where Rose was sent. Some doctors even played themselves, owing once more to the legitimacy of the picture from a factual standpoint.
This realism melds stunningly with some of the “anti-realistic” shots in the film, like the spiralling camera when Fonda enters his cell for the first time, and crafts an aura that is impossible not to believe. The Wrong Man is one of the most persuasive and tangible renderings of Hitchcock’s favourite theme, a tense drama of innocence lost and justice adrift.