Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 18, 2016)
Does the fact a movie’s based on a true story somehow make it special? Apparently the creators of 1956’s The Wrong Man thought so. The flick opens with a prologue from director Alfred Hitchcock in which he stresses the reality behind the tale and its uniqueness in his canon to that point.
Man starts on January 14, 1953, as we meet Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), the bass player in the house band at New York’s Stork Club. His job keeps him out late, and he returns home to his wife Rose (Vera Miles) and sons Greg (Robert Essen) and Robert (Kippy Campbell).
Rose needs money to fix some dental problems. Since they’re short on cash, Manny goes to their insurance agency to borrow the bucks on Rose’s policy.
Problems ensue because all of the employees at the agency believe Manny’s the guy who robbed Ann James (Doreen Lang) a few months earlier. Eventually the police take Manny into custody and grill him about this crime as well as some others. As part of the procedure, they ask Manny to copy the crook’s note. Things look bad when his handwriting resembles what the cops see on the original document.
James and other witnesses again identify Manny as the robber, so the police formally arrest him. Eventually he gets out on bail and takes on Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle) as his lawyer. The rest of the film follows Manny’s attempts to prove his own innocence as well as the effect the whole ordeal has on his family.
That last element plays a surprisingly large role in The Wrong Man. Does it count as a spoiler to reveal that Manny isn’t the robber? That seems obvious given the film’s title, although the movie doesn’t make his innocence explicit until the end. Nonetheless, the story revolves around our general acceptance of his guiltlessness, so I don’t think it gives away too much to indicate that Manny really is “the wrong man”.
The flick offers an odd mish-mash of story elements. As I mentioned, we see a lot about the impact Manny’s experiences have on his well-being and that of his loved ones.
Actually, I should qualify that to refer to loved one, as we don’t see many effects felt by Manny’s kids or others. Instead, the film focuses on how Rose adapts; I won’t give away those details, but let’s just say she handles things really poorly.
In addition to those elements, Man looks at the criminal justice system through Manny’s eyes. It creates a nicely dark feel for all its different aspects, and that works for the film. We’ve seen all the routine police procedures a million times in various movies and TV shows, but Man allows us to understand just how scary it all would be for a neophyte, especially someone who did nothing wrong.
So there’s two story threads: Manny’s experiences in the legal system and the way his affairs affect his family and himself. That should be enough for a movie, but Man just keeps going. We also have to follow Manny’s attempts to clear his name, so this leads into detective elements. Manny tries to track down various alibis but invariably finds dead ends, and that creates a major arc.
On paper, I suppose these various components don’t sound like too much to pack into a nearly two-hour movie, but in reality, they come across as excessive. Perhaps the problem stems from the way that Hitchcock integrates the pieces. The film never establishes a steady tone, as it comes from family drama to film noir to mushy melodrama to psychodrama. It flits about in search of consistency that never comes, and this makes it somewhat jerky.
When Man succeeds, however, it works pretty well. It fares best in its first act, as it draws us into Manny’s tale. A nicely even-tempered performance from Fonda helps. He makes Manny real and avoids showy clichés. Instead, he comes across just as straight and bland as he should, even if I find it laughable that we’re supposed to believe then-51-year-old Fonda as a 38-year-old; when we see Fonda with 27-year-old Vera Miles, it creates a jarring age-related disconnect.
Unfortunately, as the movie progresses, it starts to collapse under the weight of its various story threads. They pile onto each other so awkwardly that they destroy the simplicity that allowed the film’s early segments to prosper.
I also could live without the flick’s sappy ending. The Wrong Man displays a surprising lack of cynicism for a Hitchcock movie, and I don’t intend that as a compliment. Perhaps it’s refreshing to see something a little different from the director, but I don’t think the film’s innocence works for it, and a harder edge might have made it more memorable.