(director: Alfred Hitchcock; screenwriter: from the book The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero by Maxwell Anderson/Angus MacPhail/Maxwell Anderson; cinematographer: Robert Burks; editor: George Tomasini; music: Bernard Herrmann; cast: Henry Fonda (Manny Balestrero), Vera Miles (Rose Balestrero), Anthony Quayle (Frank D. O’Connor), Harold Stone (Lt. Bowers), John Heldabrand (Tomasini), Doreen Lang (Ann James), Norma Connolly (Betty Todd), Laurinda Barrett (Constance Willis), Charles Cooper (Det. Matthews), Nehemiah Persoff (Gene Conforti); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Alfred Hitchcock; Warner Bros.; 1956)

“One of Hitchcock’s underrated great films that never got its proper due, put aside by some critics as merely a minor work.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

One of Hitchcock’s underrated great films that never got its proper due, put aside by some critics as merely a minor work. It’s his most personal and grimmest film. It’s based on a real-life incident that took place in NYC in 1953 that made the newspaper headlines because of the arrest of a wrong man for armed robbery. Maxwell Anderson wrote the book called The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero from which the film is based on. The material suggesting police intimidation and injustice, is right up Hitchcock’s alley. The Master always had an apprehension about the police and that they could misuse their power, for one reason or another, to put away an innocent person, which is the reason he jumped at a chance to film such an unusual story in his opus. In this true story, the director chose to keep it a detailed hard-edged police procedural narrative, much like a documentary or a neorealism styled film, without embellishing it with dramatics. This turned off some critics, who missed H’s usual weird sense of humor and theatrical flare for providing scares. H. was serious about getting the story right and stuck to his guns about keeping the story simple. He also got the actor who was just right to play the wrong man. The stark performance by Henry Fonda was beautifully played as an innocent man caught in a nightmare and feeling his steady world crumbling as he tried to remain clear-headed. The realistic black-and-white shots add to the strong noir flavoring, implying this kind of nightmare can happen to anyone.

Warning: spoiler in next paragraph.

Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is a good Catholic, a man of no bad habits and loving family man with two young boys and a wife he adores named Rose. The dependable bass fiddle player in the Stork Club resides in a private house in Jackson Heights, Queens. After finding his wife needs $300 for dental work, he goes to the insurance office to see if he can take out a loan from his wife’s insurance policy. While there a teller (Laurinda Barrett) identifies him as the man who twice held-up the office for amounts under $100. The police pick him up in front of his house and subject him to a long grilling in the stationhouse without a lawyer, having other stores (a liquor store and a convenience store) he supposedly robbed try to identify him by having him go into the stores, making him write a threatening note with the same words used in the robbery and questioning him about his precarious financial situation as a possible motive. Manny is charged with the crime and his family has to raise $7,500 to bail him out. Manny retains as a lawyer Frank D. O’Connor (Anthony Quayle), who believes in his innocence. When the couple get the names of alibi witnesses for the crimes committed a year ago, they discover both witnesses died. Rose takes the news hard, blaming herself for causing her husband’s problems and has a mental breakdown. It’s so severe that she has to be institutionalized. After a mistrial because of a juror’s callous comments, good news comes when the real culprit is caught robbing one of the same stores and the detective gets the insurance office worker who was so sure it was Manny to put the finger on the real robber who bears a close resemblance to the bad luck musician. Manny is released but his wife remains in the mental home for two years before she’s totally cured and the family reunites to live in Florida.

It was hard to forget this downbeat but excellently realized film. The feeling of helplessness displayed by the innocent victims, justifies H’s spare filming techniques as the best way to make this horror story retain all its fright and dark implications. Behind the shadows lurks a Catholic guilt-trip.

The Wrong Man Poster