The Wrong Man-1956
Starring-Henry Fonda, Vera Miles
Scott’s Review #902
Reviewed May 24, 2019
The Wrong Man (1956) is not an Alfred Hitchcock film typically mentioned when lists of the greatest of all the director’s works are in conversation. Flying completely under the radar, and a conspicuous emission from most “Best of” collections, the film is a nice gem ready to be dusted off and appreciated for its worth. It features the legendary Henry Fonda, perfectly cast in a story point frequently used in Hitchcock films; that of the wrongly accused man.
Set in New York City, Manny Balestrero (Fonda) is a struggling musician who requires three-hundred dollars for dental work that his wife Rose (Vera Miles) needs. Determined not to let his wife suffer he decides to obtain the money by borrowing against her insurance policy. The life insurance employees mistake Manny for another man who has recently twice held them up. He is arrested and forced to perform a test for the police, which he fails, leading them to assume he is their man.
Attorney Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle) sets out to prove that Manny could not possibly be guilty since he has perfect alibis for the nights of both holdups. Complications erupt during his trial as proper witnesses either cannot be found or have died, leaving Manny in dire straits. Meanwhile, Rose teeters towards the brink of insanity as she suffers from severe depression.
The Wrong Man differs from many Hitchcock films in that the story is based upon a real-life quandary one man faced. As such, any viewer can immensely relate to the story and put themselves in Manny’s shoes. I often found myself wondering, “what would I do if this were me?” and as certainly as one could find the story implausible one could just as easily find it plausible. Mistaken identity can happen and proving one’s innocence is not as easy as it may seem.
Set largely on location is another tidbit unique to many Hitchcock productions as the man cringed at the thought of any scene that could not be manipulated by studio luxuries. The New York City locales are splendid and provide an artistic and genuine element. Many scenes were filmed in Jackson Heights, the neighborhood where Manny lived when he was accused. Most of the prison scenes were filmed among the convicts in a New York City prison in Queens. The courthouse was located at the corner of Catalpa Avenue and 64th Street in Ridgewood.
Careful not to be too dissimilar to standard Hitchcock fare, the use of the every man being falsely accused, common in some of his films, is the main story line. Other films like North by Northwest (1958) and The 39 Steps (1935) delivered the same elements with a man being mistakenly accused of murder. While the others were more of “chase stories” involving flight, The Wrong Man stays firmly planted in one city.
The film is composed with some jazz elements, here primarily to represent Fonda’s appearance as a musician in the nightclub scenes. This gives sophistication to the overall tone of the film especially as we see Manny as worldly yet kind. He is a performer but comes home to his wife and adores her, doing anything he needs to for her comfort. The music and the black and white cinematography exude harshness and coldness but also good style.
Fans of either the police force or the justice system may be in for a tough ride watching The Wrong Man as neither group is written very sympathetically. The police are the worst offenders as they go to unethical methods to accuse a man of a crime seeming not to care who is convicted only that someone is.
The one detraction to The Wrong Man is the chemistry between Fonda and Miles. The passion is underwhelming, but not terrible either. Rather, the main point of the film is the false accusations instead of the romance. A bit more of the latter might have made the film more special.
Containing suspenseful and dramatic elements and a charismatic leading man, The Wrong Man (1956) perhaps lacks the flair of other more well-known Hitchcock films but is a solid achievement and one that deserves more acclaim than traditionally given. Sullen yes, but also poignant and frightening and a terrific effort. Henry Fonda carries the film and provides compassion and realism.