The United States of America
“If you are innocent, then you have nothing to fear.”
I feel a little uncomfortable writing about a movie by Alfred Hitchcock. He is so beloved, so revered, and so studied that I fear that anything I say may be decried as sacrilege by his followers. But I have studied the man and his work, and in doing so have realized that several of his better movies have been ignored or forgotten about. So, it is at times like these that I must gird my loins and take a chance. Because even if everything that I say about this movie is wrong, at least it will get people to talk about it. So, without much further ado, I give you the first (of what will most certainly be many) review of a movie by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock.
For most of his career, Hitchcock made movies based on incredible stories that were designed to keep audiences on the edges of their seats. But frequently, they are derived from the realm of the fantastic. How many people can honestly say that they have been pursued by government agents across the top of Mount Rushmore? How many can say that they have been attacked by insane flocks of birds? Audiences have come to expect many things from Hitchcock: thrills, beautiful blonds, and gripping stories. In a word: escapism. But, what if we were told that one of his movies was based on a true story?
That is exactly what happens at the beginning of The Wrong Man (1956), when we are greeted by his silhouette on a deserted street. He says that he has a different kind of thriller that he would like to share with us. One based entirely in real life. The lights fade, and a jazzy Bernard Herrmann score kicks in as the credits begin to roll. “Wait a second,” the audience thinks, “this is a true story?” Suddenly, they are sitting up a little more straight in the theater. Suddenly, things take on a new meaning. Simple twists take on deeper meaning. Now the audience feels worried when injustice is done, not just outraged. Because maybe it could happen to them when they leave the theater.
The Wrong Man's story is simple Hitchcockian formula: there is a man who is found guilty of a crime he didn't commit. It focuses on the story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero, who in 1953 was charged with several crimes that he did not commit. He is played by the eternal everyman, Henry Fonda. We first meet him at the jazz club where he works playing bass for the band. The gig ends, he packs up, and leaves. When he exits the club, he happens to do so right as two policemen walk by on patrol. The image of Fonda walking down the street with two policemen in tow was a nice touch of foreshadowing...
Fonda returns home where he finds his two sons fast asleep and his beautiful wife awake waiting for him. They small talk. Oh? She needs $300 dollars for oral surgery. It seems like she has four impacted wisdom teeth. “You look just about perfect to me,” Fonda lovingly assures. They have already been in debt before. They have seen their fare share of troubles. But the bills always get paid, supper always gets cooked, and he always manages to come home at night by 5:30.
But his wife needs those wisdom teeth taken out. So he goes to the insurance office to borrow on his wife's policy. When he first enters the office, the teller regards him cautiously, as if something is terribly wrong. We see a point of view shot from her side of the desk. By some chance the teller window has bars that resemble jail-cell bars, creating an unsettling profile of Fonda. She seems to recognize him. She confers with the other workers. He resembles a man who has previously robbed them. They look, and he is framed against those iron bars again. The cops are called and they pick Fonda up later that night on his front steps. “Please, can I tell my wife,” Fonda asks. “It'll all be taken care of,” the officers insist. They grab him and force him into the car. As he drives away, he spots his faithful wife in the kitchen cooking dinner. It must be past 5:30. The only thing on his mind is that he is late for dinner with his family.
Upon arrival at the station, he is confronted with the accusation of several local robberies. The evidence begins to appear: He is identified by the insurance teller, he is escorted by the police to the scene of several robberies where he is identified by the store-owners, he fails a handwriting test, and he is positively identified twice in a line up. The police arrest him. The irony is that the entire time, they had been repeatedly assuring him, “If you are innocent, then you have nothing to fear.” Now, based almost completely on the basis of eyewitness testimony, he is no longer innocent. The take his fingerprints and the ink stains his fingers. Fonda looks down at his dirtied fingers. “Is that blood,” we can practically hear him think. He is taken to prison. Silhouettes of prison bars are everywhere: on the floor, on the walls, even the ceiling. Hitchcock takes his time in this segment, utilizing several quick point of view shots that focus on mundane things like shoes, hands, doors, windows. And everywhere are those damned prison bars!! Truly, Fonda has entered the gates from which there is no return. It looks like supper will be cold tonight.......................
From there, the story runs the normal route taken by trial films. He gets put up on bail, gets a lawyer, constructs a case, and tries to reconnect with his family. However, it is difficult because his wife has suddenly become very distant. It doesn't help that two key witnesses who could prove he had an alibi turn up dead right before the trial. Strange circumstances swirl around the trial. And then suddenly, in the middle of the trial, a member of the jury acts out, and a mistrial is called. Fonda is crushed by the idea that he will have to go through the whole process all over again.
But then, the strangest of things happens. The real criminal is caught red-handed trying to rob another store. Fonda is free! He returns to his family, but something is still wrong with his wife. She has gone insane and has been constituted into a mental hospital. Her reasoning is that if she didn't need oral surgery, then Fonda wouldn't have gone to the insurance office, and he wouldn't have been arrested. The guilt destroys her. Thankfully, a last minute title card soothes our worries. Two years later, she leaves the hospital completely cured! Hallelujah! Justice is done! Or is it?
The family had to endure an unimaginable ordeal all because of chance coincidence. Why did Fonda have to get arrested? “Do you have any idea what you have done to me? To my family,” Fonda asks when he runs into the real culprit in the police headquarters. Can the family ever be fully healed? It is for these reasons that The Wrong Man transcends the trial genre and enters that enigmatic realm of the film noir. Yes, it is a Hitchcock movie based around his mistaken man formula. But Hitchcock breaks his rules in this movie. Instead of starting alone and ending with a beautiful blond, just like in North by Northwest and The 39 Steps, Fonda begins with a beautiful wife and loses her in the end to a madhouse. Fonda begins with an ideal life but ends with a broken one.
Film noir has always been a tricky genre to define. Scholars and fans have debated for years whether or not certain films should be considered noirs or not. But one of the most common factors among the film noir genre is the idea of guilt and shame. The film noir hero is a broken hero. It is Humphrey Bogart sitting alone at a bar, afraid of what song may be played next on the piano. It is Jack Nicholson losing the girl in the end despite all his desperate efforts. It is Robert Mitchum working at a gas station, hoping that he has escaped his past. Certainly Henry Fonda playing a loving father doesn't deserve to be a film noir hero. The fact that he doesn't drink almost immediately disqualifies him. He doesn't start as one, but he ends as one. All the anger, hatred, shame, and grief that most noir heroes radiate gets forced upon Fonda by the outside world. He was never in the mafia. He was never a private eye. He was never involved in dirty dealings. But society labeled him a criminal, and he lost everything in the process. He ends the movie as tired, weary, and hurt as most noir heroes begin their movies with. He is the noir hero who never asked to be one. This is the noir film that should have never been. But then again, real life's a bitch, isn't it?