Hitch on the Hump: The Wrong Man (1956)

One of the main features of so many Hitchcock movies is the “wrong man“. By that I mean the average Joe, Richard Haney in The 39 Steps or Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much, gets pulled into a world of murder, spies or intrigue where he soon becomes a target like Cary Grant in North by Northwest. So it should come as no little surprise that when Hitch read a story of a real life “wrong man”, he would be attracted to the story. The article that caught the Master of Suspense’s eye appeared in a 1953 Life magazine written by journalist and crime fiction author Herbert Brean and detailed the false arrest of jazz musician Manny Balestrero and his eventual vindication. After fictionalizing so many “wrong men” adventures, it seemed natural to Hitchcock to get involved in bringing it to screen with his picture The Wrong Man.

Maxwell Anderson
Paramount, who held his contract, was not all that interested in the project, but it just so happened that Hitch still owed one more film to Warner Brothers. So after waiving his directing fee, Warners happily signed on the project. Not everyone was happy though. John Michael Hayes, the writer who had penned Hitch’s previous four films, had gone through quite a falling out with the director after demanding sole billing for 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. When the director demanded Hayes work with slighted British scribe Angus MacPhail who had been taken off of Rear Window’s credits telling Hitchcock made it plain to Hayes that, “If you don’t come to Warner Brothers with me, I’ll never speak to you again.” Hayes declines, and Hitchcock made good on his promise. In his place, Hitch brought in playwright, poet, and occasional screenwriter Maxwell Anderson who had written the play on which 1948’s Joan of Arc with Ingrid Bergman was based as well as the script for the original stage version of The Bad Seed. (He would later pen a rejected version of Vertigo, entitled Listen, Darkling, from an adaptation of Narcejac’s novel D’Entre les Morts.) Together with producer Herbert Coleman, the writers were tasked with remaining as true to life as possible and even retraced the steps of their very real “wrong man” before producing the script which would become The Wrong Man.

Eschewing his usual cameo appearance, Hitchcock is the first person to appear in The Wrong Man, and coincidentally it was the first time the director spoke in any of his films. He appears here to assure the audience that the story they are about to see is indeed based on true events.  It is the story of Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), a mild mannered bassist in a jazz combo and father to two little boys. Trying to make ends meet and get the dental work his wife (Vera Miles) needs done, he takes in her insurance policy to see what they could borrow against it. The clerks at the insurance company tell him, but they also phone the police and identify him as the man who held them up on three occasions. Manny is picked up by the police, and then continually misidentified as the hold up man by witnesses. Thrown into jail, he finally makes the astronomical bail, but then finds there is little way to prove his innocence. His wife Rose begins to crack under the strain and must be institutionalized as Manny begins to accept his fate as an innocent wrongly accused.

From all accounts, The Wrong Man stays very true to the story of Manny Balestrero even using some of the locations and actual people involved in the case. While it is fascinating that Hitchcock would so studiously bring this real story to the screen, it is also the film’s greatest hindrance. As Hitch would say later when interviewed by Francois Truffaut, “I was too concerned with veracity to take the sufficient dramatic license.” This concern for true to life events may have sprouted from Hitchcock’s admiration of the new Italian neo-realist films such as De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. However while Hitchcock remained true as possible to the story, he still infused the film with his own particular brand of film fantasy with swooping fluid camera work where he allows the lens to tell the story more than the characters and their actions. He was assisted on grafting his style into this true to life tale by cinematographer Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s collaborator behind the camera from 1951’s Strangers on a Train to 1964’s Marnie, twelve films in total spanning a large chunk of Hitchcock’s catalog.

From the start, The Wrong Man was a film tailor made for Henry Fonda and Vera Miles. The forever-earnest Fonda had been on Hitchcock’s leading man list ever since he tried to cast him in Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur. Fonda gives a measured performance, nailing the material, but never really driving home the emotion. For his part, Fonda was very pleased with working for Hitchcock saying, “He was funny all the time. Hitch would come in and tell a funny story just before he would say ‘Roll ‘em’ into a serous scene.” Miles, however, became the subject of the Hitchcock treatment. Even before the production, he controlled all aspects of her wardrobe dressing her in whites, blacks, and grays because he felt Miles wore too much color and it did not favor her (this also contributed to his choice to film in black and white). He ran the actress through the emotional ringer while filming her character’s breakdown scenes, and it is said that the actress resented Hitchcock’s micro-management though her performance is thoroughly compelling.

While the true to life story was something of a departure for Hitchcock, The Wrong Man also marks a departure for Bernard Herrmann. Having seen the other seven films that Herrmann scored for Hitchcock, I have come to expect rich string arrangements and dynamic orchestral numbers. While there are some of the strings on display in The Wrong Man, Herrmann made a departure as a nod to the main character’s profession, jazzman. Throughout the film, there are nods to swing and bop deftly woven into the musical tapestry. These moments give The Wrong Man both a driving force and some much-needed tension, but also it makes it feel more personal. The story of Manny Balestrero begins with him playing jazz, so it really brings the film together to continue that thread throughout.

In Truffaut’s talk with Hitchcock about The Wrong Man, Hitchcock concludes that it is “among the indifferent Hitchcock’s”. Truffaut, somewhat disappointed, seems to want the director to defend his movie, but the Master of Suspense goes on to say, “Impossible, I don’t feel strongly about it.” While this was true in the aftermath of the film, certainly Hitch, willing to wave his directing fee, had strong feelings about it before the project was filmed. In many ways, this was an experimental film for Hitchcock, a director who was forever experimenting and innovating. I think it is quite telling that he followed up this film with Vertigo, a film that revels in impressionistic wonder. The Wrong Man is a film that firmly fits in Hitchcock’s catalog, and though it might be “indifferent” to the Master of Suspense, it’s a must for Hitchcock fans.

Bugg Rating

1 comment:

  1. I just remeber the scene where they knock on that door and those two gorgeous laughing little girls answered, what a couple of incredible little sexpots they were.


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