Almost every Alfred Hitchcock film has something that makes it stand out from the rest of his work. In the case of The Wrong Man, it’s the simple fact that the director has elected to tackle a true story. A movie like Rope was inspired by an actual murder but doesn’t claim to tell the story of Leopold and Loeb. While Hitchcock’s assertion in his opening monologue that it’s completely true, “every word of it,” is a bit of a stretch, the film does conform to the basic facts of the real case.
Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) plays bass at New York City’s famous Stork Club. He’s a devoted husband to his wife Rose (Vera Miles) and father to their two sons. Rose needs to have her wisdom teeth pulled, which will cost $300 that the Balestreros just don’t have at the moment. Manny decides to borrow the money against her life insurance policy and heads down to the insurance company office. Unfortunately for Manny, the insurance company has been robbed twice by a man who closely resembles him. The police are notified and arrest Manny when he returns home from work. The women from the insurance office pick him out of a line-up and, coupled with a few naive mistakes he makes during questioning, are enough for the police to charge Manny with robberies.
When he makes bail, he and his wife visit attorney Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle). He listens to Manny’s story and agrees to take their case, advising Manny and Rose to start accounting for his whereabouts on the days of the crimes. Attempts to track down alibi witnesses lead, quite literally, to dead ends.
Even as Manny doggedly keeps up his optimism, Rose begins to sink into a sort of paranoid depression, believing that she has somehow brought all of this bad luck down on her family. When she lashes out at Manny, striking him, he has no choice but to place her in an institution.
Manny’s faith is sorely tested, however, when his first trial ends in a mistrial and he is faced with the prospect of going through the whole process again.
The Wrong Man stands out from Hitchcock’s other work in several ways. Unlike his other films of the period, this one is devoid of his trademark humor. The director’s trademark stylistic touches are also muted, giving The Wrong Man a stark, almost documentary feel. The only flourish that Hitchcock allows himself is the scene during Manny’s first night in jail, when a spinning camera signifies his sense of disorientation. Frankly, the film could have done without it.
This film tackles a familiar theme for Hitchcock, that of the supposed innocent caught up in a situation outside of his or her control, but it’s handled much differently from his other variations on this theme. Often, Hitchcock’s protagonists get tangled up in the plot of the movie due to some character flaw, in part bringing it on themselves. Marion Crane in Psycho and Scotty Ferguson in Vertigo are both examples of this. Manny Balestreto is a complete innocent, guilty only of bad luck and perhaps a naive faith in the system. Ironically, his wife’s dementia takes the form of the normal Hitchcock protagonist’s dilemma. She imagines that it was her own failures as a wife that brought all this trouble on her family. While it was true that the real Mrs. Balestrero suffered a breakdown during Manny’s trial, I suspect that the details of her mental illness here are a bit of artistic license on Hitchcock’s part.
Stark, humorless and with a somewhat downbeat ending, The Wrong Man was not a hit with Hitchcock’s fans at the time, but the intervening decades have allowed us to see it as a strong and unique entry in his career.