Thursday, 3 May 2018

Review #1,331: 'The Wrong Man' (1956)

Alfred Hitchcock earned the title of 'master of suspense' with some good old fashioned grafting (he had been making films since the silent era) combined with an understanding of the possibilities of cinema - and an eagerness to explore them - that few directors shared. Ask most film goers to name a Hitchcock film and the answer will likely be Psycho, Rear Window, The Birds or North by Northwest. Few will name The Wrong Man, the tightly constructed and thoroughly engaging little thriller from 1956, made after fluffier works To Catch a Thief and The Man Who Knew Too Much. This is perhaps because The Wrong Man is the filmmaker's least Hitchcockian effort, toning down the sugaryness (he labelled his movies as like 'slices of cake') and playing the story straight with little artistic flair. Even his obligatory cameo is reduced to mere narration at the film's opening.

Many of Hitchcock's thrillers revolve around a case of mistaken identity, which naturally forces the protagonist to make a break for it in the hope of proving his innocence before the police catch up to them. This time, however, the story is true. Based on the plight of Christopher 'Manny' Balestrero, a hard-working jazz musician who found himself identified by many witnesses as a hold-up man, The Wrong Man is Hitchcock's closest brush with realism. Shot on the streets of New York and using locations from the real-life story, there is more of a naturalistic feel to the film that what we are used to from the great director. Hitchcock still squeezes in some subtle camera tricks, depicting Balestrero's situation as disorientating, claustrophobic and increasingly hopeless. But with an actor of such effortless charisma as Henry Fonda at his disposal, Hitchcock mainly opts to tell the story through his lead actor's incredibly expressive face.

Hitchcock documents Balestrero's journey from being incorrectly identified by some terrified clerical workers when trying to take a loan from his life insurance policy for his wife's (Vera Miles) dental work, to his frustratingly unfair trial. The film is used to highlight flaws in a system designed to seek justice, in which an accused isn't allowed to give evidence to prove their innocence (as a truly innocent man doesn't need to prove anything), and a jury under oath makes their minds up before the trial even starts. It's a catalogue of errors from the very start, forcing Manny to seek out his own witnesses to prove he could not have committed the crime. The final reveal also comments on the folly of placing too much trust in eye-witness testimony, and the fact that many are still wrongly jailed due to failings in the system make the film's musings all the more poignant. One of Hitchcock's most underappreciated gems.

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Henry Fonda, Vera Miles, Anthony Quayle, Harold J. Stone, Charles Cooper
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

The Wrong Man (1956) on IMDb

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