THE WRONG MAN mirrored the story it told. Alfred Hitchcock’s gripping and tragic true drama about an innocent man falsely accused and the destructive effect it has on his family was itself a case of justice delayed. Well-regarded today, the bleak-toned piece was considered a failure in 1956, largely dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences, with a $2,000,000 gross burying it at 102nd place for the year. *
“An innocent man has nothing to fear. Remember that.”
Misidentified by a series of eyewitnesses, New York City jazz musician Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is arrested and tried for a string of robberies. The stress falling into the maw of the system doesn’t just overwhelm the baffled Manny; it provokes a mental breakdown in his wife ‘Rose’ (Vera Miles).
Intrigued by a magazine article on the case, Hitchcock engaged first Maxwell Anderson, then Angus MacPhail, to turn it into a screenplay, which he filmed economically on a budget of $1,200,000, using a number of the actual locations. Dropping his trademark set-piece thrills and offbeat humor for a claustrophobic black & white-shot mix of noir film and realism (Robert Burks on camera), backed by a quietly effective score from Bernard Herrmann, it’s a grim, dead-serious nightmare of all-too-real paranoia, ultimately turning painfully sad when Rose’s hold on reality deserts her.
Switching from his favored James Stewart (ensnared in mischief that same year for the director’s The Man Who Knew Too Much) to Jimmy’s laconic buddy Hank, Hitchcock found Fonda just the right guy to play the victimized Manny, projecting inner panic beneath a cool, somewhat remote exterior, so blindsided by the odds against him that he at first overlooks the symptoms of his wife’s trauma. Miles, playing a vastly different role that year in The Searchers, is superb here—this is her best work ever. Her acting skills notwithstanding, she was also unduly afflicted, with Hitchcock fixating intense and unwanted attention on her during the shoot, spending eight and nine hours a day rehearsing her breakdown scenes until she was exhausted, and understandably resentful.
“Don’t you see? It doesn’t do any good to care. No matter what you do, they’ve got it fixed so that it goes against you. No matter how innocent you are or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.”
105 minutes, with Anthony Quayle, Harold J. Stone, Esther Minciotti, Charles Cooper, Nehemiah Persoff, Werner Klemperer, Peggy Webber and Doreen Lang (Hitchcock knew nervous: here she’s a jittery clerk who helps finger Manny—she’d later be the panicking diner patron in The Birds). If you can spot ’em, new faces on hand, uncredited include Harry Dean Stanton (feature debut, 29), Patricia Morrow, Bonnie Franklin (debut,11) and Tuesday Weld (debut,12).
* Fonda: “I think it is very fine, but because Hitchcock shot it almost like a documentary, without his usual flash, audiences were disappointed. I remember very clearly going down to Fort Lauderdale, where Manny was playing at a little club up the road, and meeting him with Vera Miles. Manny’s wife was out of the hospital by then, but she was still shaken by the thing, and we were warned not to talk to her about it. She just sat there at the table, silently, with her hands folded in her lap.”