Movie Critique - The Wrong Man

For review of other books or movies by Alfred Hitchcock, go here.

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: Despite not being a commercially successful movie, the scariest movie by Hitchcock, this sad drama leaves you anxious for the Balestreros and a rage against the mishandling of justice. An excellent masterpiece certainly overlooked and forgotten.

The Wrong Man is a 1956 American film noir produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock with Henry Fonda, Vera Miles, Sir Anthony Quayle and Harold J. Stone among the lead cast. One of the few Hitchcock movies based on true story closely following the real-life events.

Christopher Emanuel "Manny" Balestrero (portrayed by Henry Fonda) goes to the life insurance company to borrow $300 for his wife, Rose's (portrayed by Vera Miles), dental work. The insurance company mistakes him for the guy who had twice held them up and robbed. From there it starts a journey of mistaken identity, arrests, court room drama and finally redemption due to sheer luck. 

Based on the true story mentioned in the book The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero by Maxwell Anderson, screenplay for the film was written by Angus MacPhail with expert support from Anderson. 

Henry Fonda was already over 50 years of age when this movie was made. Yet he played the part of a 38 year old man with the same ease as he would have played if he was 38 years old. Vera Miles a good 24 years younger than him at the time of the film, played the part of a nervous and depressed wife to the point. 

Hitchcock used real locations in several scenes in the film - Manny is taken to a real prison among real convicts in Queens; many scenes that were filmed in Jackson Heights; courthouse is the real one located in Ridgewood; sanitarium where Rose was committed.

Three actors had their debut in this film - Harry Dean Stanton portrays as Department of Corrections Employee; Tuesday Weld and Bonnie Franklin as the giggling girls whom the Balestreros approach while finding proof of his innocence. 

Sir Anthony Quayle portrays the role of attorney Frank O'Connor who fights to free Manny. A short but powerful role by Quayle shows the shrewdness of defense lawyers. Not sure if in real life Quayle was the same and that he followed Perry Mason closely, but it gave a Perry Mason-isque flavor to his role in the film. 

Hitchcock movies are usually filled with mystery or murder or psychological chills. In this movie along with all those, the director gives grittiness to the story, almost going into the underbelly of darkness hidden behind a human mind but shows it in the justice system; explores the unfairness of the system. 

We know normally Hitchcock makes his appearances in all of his movies in cameo shots. However in this he appears in the beginning of the film telling the audience that the events in the film are real, and that too as a silhouette only. Also the only film in which he has a speaking part.

The opening credits also have a preface title card leading us to the story. Contrast to the dark and gritty tale, the opening credits are shown over a lively party in a jazz club, Stork Club. Setting the stage to a happy note is so much false just as the way Balestrero is framed in the film. 

Deliberate faults in police investigatory system are shown everywhere, perhaps to keep the suspense going on. With the strong story line one would expect the movie to be a success. However it didn’t make a lot of money and was a mediocre success. Perhaps the deliberate flaws didn’t jive well. I think this is the slowest Hitchcock movie I have ever seen making it the most scariest as well. 

Why didn’t Balestrero ever ask for a lawyer by his side while cooperating with the police? Why didn’t the police compare his fingerprints with the fingerprints they found at various crime scenes? Wouldn’t that have eliminated him as a suspect? Also police were handling all the evidence without gloves. How can the cops do a handwriting analysis on the spot and say it's Manny's? By all rights, Manny should have never been arrested at all be it on the film or the real life incident Manny went through.

The film made me think that Hitchcock's movies in the likes of Psycho and The Birds are so lame. Only because this is so real, nothing is fiction like those movies, nothing is to be thought of just as a film, live in that moment and forget after. This story and the way he takes the viewers through the live of Balestreros leaves a certain chill in your bones that doesn’t come with other movies of his.

Despite not being a commercially successful movie, the scariest movie by Hitchcock, this sad drama leaves you anxious for the Balestreros and a rage against the mishandling of justice. For once Hitchcock keeps it as close to the real story making it all the more believable. An excellent masterpiece certainly overlooked and forgotten. Certainly something to watch if you get a chance.

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. In 2014 a street was named “Manny ‘The Wrong Man’ Balestrero Way’’ at 73rd Street and 41st Avenue in Jackson Heights, New York. The street is not far from the former real-life Balestrero home. Picture Courtesy of Queens Gazette.

b. Martin Scorsese several times mentioned that this film influenced him in the making of the 1976 American psychological drama, Taxi Driver. 

c. One of the episode in 1957 for the popular tv show To Tell The Truth, Manny Balestrero was the subject.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. First time when they meet the cops call Balestrero as "Chris" and after a few scenes later he is addressed as "Manny" which is what Manny goes by. Nowhere there was a scene where Manny corrected the officers on the right name. Perhaps that scene was cut?

b. When Manny is taken into the holding cell, the guard asks for Manny's tie. However next morning Manny is seen wearing it again while he is still in the holding cell.

c. When Manny's hands are fingerprinted, his hands are shown with the ink. However in the next scene when he looks at his hands while sitting in the holding cell the ink is vanished. When did they allow him to wash hands?

d. The police truck that takes Manny to the police station has its number changing from 1437 to 1407 and back to 1437 between shots.

e. In the prison scene, you can hear one of he inmates yell out "What'd they get ya for, Henry?" using Henry Fonda's real name.


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