Friday, 14 August 2020

Movie Review: The Wrong Man (1956)

A drama based on real events, The Wrong Man recounts the infuriating story of a life disrupted by a case of mistaken identity.

In New York City, Christopher "Manny" Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is a family man who works nights as the band bass player at the popular Stork Club. Manny and his wife Rose (Vera Miles) have two young sons and plenty of financial pressures. With Rose in need of expensive dental work Manny heads to their insurance agency office to request a loan against Rose's life insurance policy. The employees mistakenly identify him as a wanted criminal who held up the same office months earlier.

Manny is questioned by police detectives and then arrested and charged with multiple counts of armed robbery and assault. After he is released on bail with help from his brother-in-law, Manny and Rose approach lawyer Frank O'Connor (Anthony Quayle) for help, but after more setbacks Rose's mental health starts to suffer.

Director Alfred Hitchcock takes a temporary detour away from any vestiges of suspense or horror and tackles a straightforward docudrama. Based on the book The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero by Maxwell Anderson, The Wrong Man delves into the minutiae of Manny's ordeal, and while a strong sense of injustice permeates the film, as a drama the material is limited. 

Hitchcock chronicles Manny's arrest, questioning and journey through the court and prison systems in excruciating detail. While Henry Fonda stoically (and mostly silently) subjects himself to the indignities unleashed by misfiring judicial machinery, the film keeps digging the same emotionally stagnant patch of earth long after the point is made that the system can fail and turn against the innocent.

Once Manny is released on bail the narrative momentum improves, and Anthony Quayle's introduction as smooth lawyer Frank O'Connor is a ray of positive light piercing the gloom, although his character is underused. Mary's descent into a severe depression is a heartbreaking overlay of agony, a strong and affectionate wife replaced by a shell of woman destroyed by guilt and a wave of misfortune. Manny has to not only defend against false criminal charges, but also arrange the care Rose needs.

Stylistically Hitchcock relies on crisp close-ups, some excellent moody nighttime shots, and a couple of camera gimmicks. In search of witnesses who can provide essential alibis Manny and Rose visit some seedy parts of town, adding a whiff of murky grit to the Balestreros' torment. The visual artistry helps, but while The Wrong Man is an important story, the film carries only a modest cinematic punch.



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