Someone must have slandered Manny Balestrero, for one evening, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested. Or, rather, he was picked up outside his house in Queens, was not allowed to speak to his wife, was taken to liquor stores and pharmacies and forced to perform as a sort of Kafkaesque runway model. He’s sent into these places—all of which had been held up by a man vaguely resembling Balestrero—and told to walk a line, to feel guilty, look guilty and fulfil a collective urge to assign guilt. He’s taken into a police station, asked to write out, word for word, a note demanding money. He’s put in a line-up, and a woman who already pegged him as a hold-up man confirms that yes, he’s guilty. Then he’s arrested, put on trial and forced to do the legwork to prove his own innocence. Eventually his wife’s psychic health is destroyed, perhaps because she’s unconsciously absorbing his anxiety, or perhaps because, against all logic, the assignation of guilt is all she needs to start believing that her husband is guilty. It’s tragic and seems strange yet rings absolutely true. The Wrong Man (1956) is a brilliant film about the fear of authority and the power of guilt to corrupt even the innocent.
The Wrong Man was based on a true story, and it was so gloomy and anxiogenic that its director, Alfred Hitchcock, provided a spoken introduction that feels uncomfortably close to an apology. This isn’t a normal Hitchcock film, he explains, but bear with me. Indeed, Hitchcock’s brand was associated with a certain glamour, and the only glamour in The Wrong Man dissipates before the opening credits finish. Shot in black and white, set in winter and populated entirely by working-class characters, the film refuses to offer escapism, aside from the nervous pleasures of suspense. That and the pleasures of watching a great Hollywood actor at work. Henry Fonda plays Manny, and he’s so damned good, particularly in the lengthy sequence in which he’s taken into custody and eventually incarcerated. He’s good because he does little yet transmits so much through his stillness and gaze. Fonda could be creepy if he needed to—see Daisy Kenyon (1947)—but here he surrenders completely to inhabiting an honest man drowning in a tempest set into motion by forces outside his control. And, very shrewdly, those forces are represented by lawmen just doing their jobs; this way it is implicit that the malice is systematic, bureaucratic and could come for any of us.
The Wrong Man has been newly released on blu-ray by Warner Archives. It is, of course, not the first time it’s been available on home video, but Hitchcock remains a filmmaker that people still know and get excited by, and his entire body of work—not just the most successful films—deserve our attention. So this release is a reminder to see The Wrong Man. It has the most Hitchcockian title of any Hitchcock film, yet it is an absolute outlier in his oeuvre. It’s simultaneously soulful and procedural and pretty bleak, and it will resonate with anyone who has ever been in trouble for something they didn’t do, that they know they didn’t do, and yet had to remind themselves that they didn’t do it. V