Hitchcock Haul: The Wrong Man (1956)

511M26LcwiL._SY445_The Wrong Man…more like the wrong movie (yikes). It’s been a while since I’ve really disliked a Hitchcock film that I’ve watched for this little project of mine, but wow did I disliked this one! The thesis of this film is, “all white men look the same.” This movie is bad. I was not only bored but also annoyed.

Hitchcock dips into true-ish crime with this one, basing the story off of the book The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero by Maxwell Anderson. Hitchcock would actually hire Anderson to also work on the screenplay for The Wrong Man as well as Vertigo. There is a bit of a similarity in vibe between the films, except Vertigo is amazing and this movie is trash.

The beginning of the film features an intro that would have felt familiar to fans of Hitchcock’s television series. Hitchcock himself appears to tell the expectant audience that the story that was about to unfold was more horrific and compelling than any he’d ever told before, that it was a truth stranger than fiction! At the time, positive reviews mentioned its gripping realism. Folks viewing The Wrong Man today (like myself) would actually call the story tired, in part due to Hitchcock’s own familiar use of the trope.

The plot goes a little something like this…and no I shan’t be warning you of a spoiler because if you can’t guess the entire narrative by the title alone you don’t deserve the privileged of spoiler alerts.

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Promo image featuring Henry Fonda and Vera Miles

Manny Balestrero lived in Queens and was a musician at the Stork Club in New York City. In the film, Manny (who is described as being 38 despite Henry Fonda actually being about 50 at the time of shooting and very much looking it) goes to his insurance agency’s office to discuss his wife’s insurance claim, but while there he is identified by the women who work behind the counter as the same man who robbed the office recently. He maintains his innocence, but it gets stranger when the owner of a liquor store also identifies him as the man who robbed the store recently. Manny is asked to write a note dictated to him by the cops, and when compared with the stick up note written by the robber it looks, uh, close enough. That’s all the proof the cops need, so Manny is arrested and so begins the long and boring majority of the movie.

Manny and his wife Rose (Vera Miles) recruit legal help and begin the long process of finding proof to exonerate Manny and going to court and filing appeals etc. This was so long and so boring. It was also confusing, because why would the couple be the ones who had to travel all around the city and upstate to the vacation spot they were at with their two sons the day of one of the robberies to get testimonials and witnesses to their alibi? Where the hell is their lawyer? Anyway, this effort generates very mixed results. Some witnesses have died since the vacation, some can’t be found. It seems like a mess.

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Rose is now depressed…can’t you tell?

During the legal proceedings, Rose develops debilitating depression and anxiety, causing a bit of a break. I will say this, Vera Miles’ performance of a woman in the depths of a deep depression starts off excellent. I really believed she was suffering, but it quickly turned overwrought. After Manny and his lawyer notice her illness, he ships her away to a “home” while he goes to trial. This event was very damaging to the real Manny, and I know that mental healthcare has come an incredibly long way since the ’50s, but the whole ordeal felt callous and cruel to me. And this is yet another tired trope on Hitchcock’s behalf. As with the case of mistaken identity, the mental break and subsequent confinement are done poorly and feel borderline offensive.

Then, after Rose is settled in the hospital, The Wrong Man becomes a morality movie for roughly one minute as Manny turns to god. Unable to commit to the rigors of morality, it quickly returns to court drama. Despite Manny only praying to a crucifix for 30 seconds, his case ends up having a mistrial. Before he can go back to trial, however, the actual robber is apprehended trying to stick up a grocery store. Here’s the big twist…the actual robber looks almost kind of like Manny!!!

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Manny is set free, but his life is still damaged. His wife stays in the hospital for two years but eventually returns to the family. They then move to Florida, which is the most puzzling part of all especially for a family who just went through legal hell.

Hitchcock enjoys playing off of social anxieties. This is what makes his work really stick in your brain. Obsession, wrongful conviction, mental illness, mistaken identity, birds…these are all things we may encounter in small ways here and there, but when blown out of proportion they have the capacity to plunge us into a nightmare from which there is no return.

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The Wrong Man was, I’m sure, an attempt at really pushing the audience’s buttons. What is more terrifying than living out the plot of a Hitchcock film in your actual life? Manny Balestrero actually did, and then Hitchcock regurgitated it. The problem is, to me anyway, when you’ve got such masterful and exciting films like North by Northwest or Spellbound that tell similar kinds of tales, a slow-moving true story with an offensive anecdote about mental health in the middle of it isn’t going to grab attention. At least, not to those of us witnessing true crime in 2019. We see hell on the news every day.

I really cannot recommend this film for anything. Honestly, it’s just depressing. Watch literally any other Hitchcock movie instead.

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