What’s the scariest thing Hitchcock put on screen? Norman Bates dressed as his mother doing non-culinary things with a bloody great kitchen knife in ‘Psycho’? Scotty Ferguson making over a guilt-addled woman in the image of the dead woman he’s become morbidly obsessed with in ‘Vertigo’? The necktie killer assaulting and throttling his latest victim whilst murmuring “lovely, lovely” in ‘Frenzy’?
Or is it Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) helplessly trying to protest his innocence as the relentless wheels of the justice system grind him down in ‘The Wrong Man’?
Manny is a jazz musician whose unsociable hours take him away from his wife Rose (Vera Miles) and two children. Money is tight. Rose blames herself for being a bad housekeeper. Manny, brushing her self-criticism away, determines to raise some cash-in-hand by borrowing against his insurance policy.
Manny doesn’t go to the bank often; it’s usually Rose who does so. In his overcoat and hat, his angular frame striking, he reminds one of the tellers of an armed robber who held her up. She coolly finishes serving him, then alerts the police.
Manny is arrested outside his house and taken down the precinct. His pleas of innocence are met sympathetically, but it all comes down to witness identification. He’s put in a line-up. The teller picks him out without hesitation.
It’s a case of mistaken identity, simple as that. A coincidence of height and physical appearance. But the police have a key witness in the teller and she’s unwavering in her testimony. Suddenly, it’s not about being innocent until proven guilty. Manny’s locked in a cell, had up before a magistrate, bound over until a trial date’s set, bundled into a van and taken to the lock-up.
Hitchcock, in these scenes, achieves an almost documentary sense of realism. The police station, courtroom and holding cells are grim*. Scenes of Manny being transported from court to cell, he and his fellow defendants manacled and herded like cattle, a haunted and defeated look on his face, still pack a punch fifty years after the film was made. Hitchcock puts the audience through his hero’s ordeal like never before.
Plenty of Hitch heroes have found themselves in the frame and on the lam, wanted men, but they usually seize upon a chance to escape and the narrative evolves into a chase movie. The authorities in pursuit of a fugitive; the fugitive in pursuit of the truth.
Not here. Manny has no opportunity to flee. He doesn’t even get to mount a defence until his family put up his bail, and even then he’s reliant on well-intentioned but inexperience lawyer Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle) to take his case. O’Conner urges Manny to bring forward witnesses who can attest to his whereabouts on the day of the robbery. An easy task, you’d think, given that he was anywhere but at the bank with a gun in his hand.
Not so. As witness after witness is discounted (they’ve died, they’ve moved away), the strain starts to tell on Rose as badly as on Manny. Worse, in fact. Not just an innocent man accused, but in hock to his lawyer, his wife in a sanatorium and a date in court …
‘The Wrong Man’ is perhaps the most un-Hitchcock Hitchcock movie. It is devoid of suspenseful set-pieces, suave heroes, mysterious and alluring heroines, devious twists in the tail and sprigs of acidic humour. Nor is it founded on a set of narrative contrivances à la ‘North by Northwest’ or the machinations of Fifth Columnists as in ‘Saboteur’.
It’s a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God story (based on an actual case) where one person, the teller, without any motive of spite or malice, makes a mistake. A mistake that’s taken as gospel by the legal system. And an ordinary man is caught in the great unstoppable machine of legal process. Every frame of film emphasises that it could happen to anyone. It happened to Manny Balestrero.
*Hitchcock filmed at the Court Square prison, Queens, New York (Fonda is detained in the same cell the real Balestrero was put in), the actual sanatorium Rose was housed in and the night spot – the Stork Club – where Manny played. The locations bring the film to life.