Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero
THE WRONG MAN B
USA (105 mi) 1956 d: Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock creates a full-blown film noir in what is easily his most seriously downbeat film, arguably the most depressing commercial film in American cinema, a Black and White, near documentary, psychological police procedural based on real events, though instead of the police, it’s seen exclusively through the eyes of a man arrested for something he didn’t do, Henry Fonda as Manny Balestrero, the only film where Fonda worked with Hitchcock. This film is a predecessor to another horrific depiction of real life murders in Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood (1967), seen through the eyes of the murderers, which uses a similar near documentary style, where in each the reality of the circumstances is as powerful as any fictional dramatization. The existential nature of the Kafkaesque perspective reveals a man charged for a crime he didn’t commit, feeling cut off and isolated from the world around him, as nothing that previously made sense in his world exists anymore, where he has to prove to himself, and those around him, that he couldn’t have committed the crimes even as the police amass a myriad of circumstantial evidence that suggest he did. When he is positively identified as the armed robber in several incidents, by two women in an insurance agency and another liquor store clerk, he begins to question his own reality, as the old one no longer exists. Shot in New York City using the actual locations where the true story occurred, such as the Stork Club where Manny plays bass in a jazz band, cinematographer Robert Burks accentuates darkness and light, which is especially vivid in a shot traveling across a bridge where it may as well be a metaphor for his guilt or innocence. The unusually austere and restrained technique shows a completely understated style where Hitchcock has brilliantly reduced the film to pure cinema mechanics, at times resembling the construction of a Bresson film, in particular A MAN ESCAPED (1956) or PICKPOCKET (1959).
Eschewing his typical anonymous film appearance, where he actually shot a scene of himself in the cafeteria counter with Fonda in the foreground while he can be viewed in the background, Hitchcock chose not to use that scene and instead opens the film as himself in a darkly shadowed appearance, the only time he spoke or appeared as himself during his feature film career, offering an introduction, telling the viewers “This is a true story, every word of it, and yet it contains elements that are stranger than all the fiction that has gone into many of the thrillers I've made before.” Fonda is a completely understated everyman, married with two children, whose wife Rose (Vera Miles) relies upon him like clockwork, dependable in every way, where despite working late hours in an upscale nightclub, Manny doesn’t even drink. But when he ventures to the insurance office in an attempt to take out a loan against his wife’s insurance policy, as she needs $300 dollars worth of dental work, he’s quickly recognized by the teller who calls the police. Now why someone who’s supposedly robbed the place would walk in and freely offer his name and address apparently never occurred to anyone, neither the clerks nor the police, where the detectives simply accept the official line-up identification when they haul in Manny for questioning. For awhile the film accentuates the meticulous detail of every procedural step, riding in police cars through the streets of New York to revisit the scenes of the crime, the overly polite interrogation itself (where interestingly the Miranda rights informing him of his right to counsel, mandated by the Supreme Court a decade later, were never explained at any time during his arrest), making statements, being officially charged, admitted to a small cell in lock-up, getting handcuffed, appearing before the court, being transferred to a different location, an endless series of coldly mechanical routines that have the effect of humiliating and dehumanizing the individual, where the process itself starts to make him feel guilty. More importantly, unlike police procedurals, we never see the police investigate the alleged crime, because once Manny’s been charged, he’s completely left out of the process, which only furthers his sense of isolation.
This film takes an interesting psychological tone, where the shattered interior world is perfectly expressed by Bernard Herrmann’s pensive musical score, feeling very much like late night, 3 o’clock in the morning jazz music, with a walking bass line and a few lone instruments joining in for a chillingly effective feel of loneliness. What’s curious, especially after decades of police procedurals on American television, is watching the accused have to do their own investigating, trying to run down potential alibi witnesses, interviewing neighbors nearby when they can’t be found, trying to find someone who can prove Manny was somewhere else at the time of the robberies. This entire process, having to prove you’re innocent when all evidence suggests otherwise, has a way of weighing heavily on one’s subconscious, where as friends or family you start to believe, at least on some level, that it might be true. In the case of Rose, it all becomes too much for her and she becomes overwhelmed with guilt, thinking it’s all her fault, that she’s bringing all this tragedy to other people’s lives. Rose ultimately has a mental breakdown, where her only protection against it all is to build a wall of indifference, shut off from reality, believing the situation is hopeless, fatalistically stuck in a permanent state of failure. Clearly this has severe ramifications with the family, as the story just grows more depressing and downbeat. What’s missing in this film is the trademark build up of suspense and tension from Hitchcock, so prominent in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), for instance, another procedural film that was way ahead of its time in its methodical, perfectly synchronized, psychological storytelling. Part of Hitchcock’s intention was to make the audience experience just how easily this could happen to them, where in an instant they’re suddenly powerless and alone, literally consumed by a false reality that’s not your own, where all the evidentiary conclusions turn out to be false, where you remain stuck in this nightmarish parallel world hoping to find a way out. Despite the supposed hint of optimism at the end of the picture, in stark contrast from the unrelenting hopelessness of the rest of the picture, according to Balestrero's son Gregory, Rose died thirty years later having never fully recovered from the trauma.
Note – A 13-year old Tuesday Weld acts in just her second film with this early performance as one of the two giggly girls who answers the door when Manny and Rose are searching for witnesses, while Harry Dean Stanton is one of the uncredited Department of Corrections employees.
According to the Innocence Project, The Innocence Project - Know the Cases, founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, by 2010, there were 297 post-conviction DNA exonerations in United States history, including 35 different states so far, where 17 people had been sentenced to death before DNA proved their innocence and led to their release, where the average sentence served has been 13 years, about 70 percent of those exonerated are members of minority groups, 99 percent male, and in almost 40 percent of exonerated cases the actual perpetrator has been identified by DNA testing. Almost half of those exonerated have been financially compensated for their time in prison, while 22 percent of the cases being investigated were dropped due to lack of evidence, as the original DNA was lost or destroyed. More than 75 percent of wrongful convictions are overturned due to false eyewitness identification. About 3,000 prisoners write to the Innocence Project annually, and at any given time the Innocence Project is evaluating 6,000 to 8,000 potential cases. James Bain is the longest-incarcerated victim of a wrongful conviction to be freed through DNA evidence, after having served 35 years for a kidnapping, burglary, and rape he did not commit. Bain's appeal had previously been denied four separate times until he was exonerated December 2009. The common theme running through all these cases include poverty and racial issues to eyewitness misidentification, invalid or improper forensic science, overzealous police and prosecutors, and inept defense counsel, all issues that continue to plague our criminal justice system today.