19 July 2005 | JamesHitchcock
And Justice for All?
The theme of an innocent man wrongly accused of a crime was a frequent one in Alfred Hitchcock's work, but "The Wrong Man" is very different from most of his other treatments of this theme. It is based upon a true story, and is told in a sober, semi-documentary style rather than the director's more normal thriller style. There are no cliffhangers or chase sequences and no directorial set pieces like the scene with the crop-dusting plane in "North by Northwest" or the shower scene in "Psycho", and the ending is far more downbeat than the normal triumphant finale with the villain dead or in police custody and the hero vindicated and free to marry the beautiful young heroine. (One thing the film does have in common with a more traditional thriller is a suitably eerie musical score from Bernard Herrman who also provided the music for several other Hitchcock films).
The central character is Emmanuel Balestrero, a musician employed in a New York nightclub, a devoted husband and the father of two young sons. After visiting an insurance company to borrow some money against his wife's policy, Balestrero is arrested and told that he has been identified as the man who carried out two robberies at the company's offices. He protests his innocence but further witnesses come forward to allege that he was involved in other robberies. He is released on bail, and manages to find a lawyer to take on the case, but has difficulty in establishing an alibi that will clear his name. The action culminates in a trial scene, something of a rarity in Hitchcock's work. Although he was fascinated by the law and the criminal justice system, he preferred to create an atmosphere of physical menace rather than rely on the verbal duels of the traditional courtroom drama.
Parallel to the story of Balestrero's fight to establish his innocence is the story of his wife, Rose. Another of Hitchcock's interests, one often reflected in his work, was psychology, often but not always the psychology of the criminal mind. This interest is explored most deeply in "Spellbound", but it also appears in films such as "Strangers on a Train" and "Psycho"; both Bruno Anthony and Norman Bates can be seen as psychological case studies. In "The Wrong Man" the stress of her husband's ordeal affects Rose's mind, and she suffers first from depression, then from paranoia. She suffers a breakdown and is committed to a mental hospital. Vera Miles gives a particularly fine performance as Rose, contrasting with Henry Fonda's baffled but stoical Balestrero.
The film is not "scary" in the way that a normal Hitchcock thriller is scary, but is nevertheless frightening. In the average thriller, we feel anxiety on behalf of the hero; here we feel anxiety not only on behalf of Balestrero, who runs the risk of being imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, but also on behalf of society as a whole. This is one Hitchcock film with a serious message, intended to show that miscarriages of justice can occur all too easily. The director emphasised this message in the opening spoken prologue in which he addresses the camera directly, a prologue that replaces his normal cameo appearance. The possibility of an innocent man going to jail is all the more chilling for the fact that no-one has given perjured evidence or deliberately attempted to frame Balestrero. The witnesses genuinely believe that he is the guilty man, and the police remain dispassionate throughout. Certainly, some of the elements of criminal procedure shown would not be permissible today (suspects being arrested without being informed of their rights or of the crime of which they are suspected, interviews being conducted without a written or taped record being kept, two witnesses allowed to be present together during an identification parade), but this does not lessen the film's impact; anyone with any knowledge of the law will be aware that innocent people can still be convicted in the twenty-first century.
Apart from "Psycho" this was Hitchcock's last film made in black and white, and he makes good use of the medium, with some striking photography. Particularly notable is his use of close-ups, such as of the witnesses when they think they recognise Balestrero as the robber, or of Vera Miles's face to illustrate Rose's emotional turmoil. This is a stark, sombre film, a memorable departure from the normal Hitchcock style. 7/10