Wednesday, 27 January 2010


The Wrong Man (1956) is perhaps the least Hitchcockian film Alfred Hitchcock ever made. Based on a true story, and scripted by famous American playwright Maxwell Anderson, it tells of the arrest of New York jazz musician Manny Balestrero for a series of hold-ups. Henry Fonda, in the title role, plays a man trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare, and watches as his wife, Rose, brilliantly played by Vera Miles, falls apart.

The film is notable for Hitchcock NOT appearing in a cameo role in the main body of the film but rather simply appears in silhouette on a darkened street in a prologue, as though he didn't wish to disturb the documentary style of the film. Even his words stress the way the film stands apart from the normal Hitchcock outing: "In the past, I have given you many kinds of suspense pictures. But this time, I would like you to see a different one."

Reflecting the neorealistic movies of the later 1950s, The Wrong Man uses the real New York, including the famous Stork Club, where Manny/Fonda plays (and where Hitchcock was a regular), plus NY streets and City Prison in Queens, where an actual inmate can be heard to shout "What'd they get ya for, Henry?" But much of the rest of the movie employs a Hollywood soundstage and back-lots.

The Wrong Man is a very stark, unremitting film, which seems to abandon the usual Hitchcockian effects for black and white storytelling and powerful emotions kept in check. Bernard Herrman's score is also restrained, but also insistent. The black and white images of the police van with its lattice work, and the bare reality of his cell, tell their own story. Untypically, the film explores the central character's - and the director's? - Catholicism, through lots of religious iconography, including rosary beads, and references to praying.
The Wrong Man has proved influential - Scorsese employed what he saw as the "paranoia" of the insurance office scene for Taxi Driver. The film also provoked the longest piece of film criticism ever wriiten by Jean-Luc Godard. While Hitchcock rather underplayed the film in his famous book-length interviews with Truffaut - claiming it should be "filed under indifferent Hitchcocks... I don't feel that strong about it" - this was perhaps a reflection on the film's initial box office failure. (But never trust the artist - trust the tale, as the old adage says).

Some points:

Vera Miles was making both The Searchers with John Ford and The Wrong Man with Hitchcock at the same time. There is a story of Ford asking why she was speaking with a plummy accent when she returned to the set of his famous movie, while Hitch is said to have teased Miles, pretending to pull straw from her hair when she turned up on the set of his movie.

Winter was drawing in when the hotel scene was filmed in upstate New York - note the real snow on the ground . Hitchcock remained in his warm limo, telling his assistant director to film Fonda and Miles as they try to gather an alibi.

Virtually the whole movie was storyboarded, down to the smallest detail in Manny's cell.

The epilogue was Hitchcock's idea - and may NOT be true.
Publicity shot for a lobby card


1 comment:

  1. This is one of the few Hitchcock films I haven't seen but I did think Vera Miles was GREAT in Psycho so I may give it a whirl. Still, I'd kind of like to leave a few Hitch till later in life.

    BTW I'm a fellow North Easterner. Live up near Durham :-)
    Sounds like you have a great time up there.