The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: Manny Ballestero is an honest hardworking musician at New York’s Stork Club. When his wife needs money for dental treatment, Manny goes to the local insurance office to borrow on her policy. Employees at the office mistake him for a hold-up man who robbed them the year before and the police are called. The film tells the true story of what happened to Manny and his family.
James: This film had so much potential. It starts slowly and gathers so much tension as it goes along. I thought we were really in for something special. All the classic elements are here, but it’s definitely a slower film than we’re used to, with less flair. And yes, I know it’s based on a true story. But still, The Wrong Man just doesn’t work.
Jason: Oh, excellent—I completely disagree.
James: I knew you were going to disagree with me on this one. Okay, so Hitch shot this movie more realistically than he’s ever done before. And that style works in the movie’s early stages. Watching this innocent man, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), get thrown in jail—that’s powerful stuff. But after his initial struggle, when he’s released on bail and his wife Rose (Vera Miles) starts to go crazy, the focus shifts and the movie just falls apart. I wanted to stay with Manny’s plight. I was involved with him. I had invested myself in his emotion, so when the focus of the film shifted to her, I felt lost. Sure, in retrospect I can understand that Rose is an innocent bystander too, and that she’s torn apart just as he is.
Jason: I really admire this film, not only for the terrific first act, in which an innocent man is wrongly accused of a crime and goes through the humiliation of the police interrogation and jailing, but also for the second-act emotion of the crumbling of Manny’s family life, all because of one false accusation. I completely agree about the tension of the first half, which is filled with tiny, perfect moments that add up to a sense of inevitability and hopelessness and terror. I felt really involved in all of it. I’m talking about the many moments when Manny throws haunted glances all around him, taking in the shoes of the other prisoners, the handcuffs on the officer’s belt, the people small-talking in the courtroom when his life is in the balance. I mean, I felt as if I was in his shoes. It was that powerful.
James: It’s obvious that we’re in full agreement about the first half of this film. It’s really an amazing section. I loved the shots of the shoes in the police van, and I agree about the sequence in the courthouse when everyone is chatting, as if it’s no big deal that Manny’s life is in the balance. That’s powerful stuff, as you said. It really grants access to the character’s emotions.
Jason: Not only that, but the style of the film—stark black-and-white, static shots, no real Hitchcockian camera work—gives this true story an almost documentary-like feel, lending it a grim sense of realism. I mean, this is really gritty, down-and-dirty filmmaking. You are right there in Manny’s shoes, feeling the same fear and claustrophobia. We are directly experiencing his predicament, and—true to Hitch—most of it happens in long, wordless sequences of pure cinema.
James: You might say that I absolutely loved the first hour, but then everything starts going downhill.
Jason: You mentioned that the later narrative about Rose breaking down under the stress of her own guilty feelings is a letdown, but I found it equally powerful. I see her breakdown as an extension of the tragedy that Manny faces in the first half of the film. Her mental deterioration is still part of his tragedy. The film is therefore not only about the terror of false incarceration but about the long-term effects of that experience on an innocent family. One of the most powerful scenes in the film for me occurs at the end, when Manny is vindicated, and he goes to the mental institution to rescue Rose from her own incarceration, but she’s too far gone. That, to me, is the real tragedy of this film.
James: The whole section focusing on Rose felt wrong. I like the idea of showing that the false accusation has hurt Manny’s entire family, but where did the notion of insanity come from? It felt so unreal in the film, counter to everything that came before. Perhaps if Hitch had given it a bit more buildup? Maybe show Manny and Rose arguing, or show that she doubts him more and more as time goes on (as Clint Eastwood did in Mystic River). Instead, she just suddenly goes crazy. That felt so wrong. Almost comical. The rest of the film is still powerful, whenever it focuses on Manny’s struggle to get himself off the hook, but all the scenes dealing with Rose’s breakdown fall flat.
Jason: Interesting. I thought Rose’s breakdown was handled very well. I saw the seed of it when she first reacts to the news that Manny has been arrested for robbery at the life-insurance office. She says, softly, as if distracted, “I knew it was something like that.” Later, she sort of crumbles when she finds that a couple of potential witnesses have died. Then, we get a really powerful scene in their bedroom, when Manny comes home after a long night at work down at the Stork Club. Rose is sitting on a stool next to the bed, looking haunted and afraid, similar to how he looked when he went through his own horror earlier in the film. We see that the guilt of the situation has consumed her. She feels guilty for being the reason Manny went to the life-insurance office in the first place, and she has her own doubts about his innocence. Did she drive Manny to crime? We can guess that she feels completely at fault for everything. I can easily believe how that guilt might lead to a mental breakdown. Actually, I think you could draw parallels between the “prisons” that these two characters experience, one outward and one inward. I know that some of the psychology is primitive (at one point, her doctor says she’s in a “frightening landscape that could be on the dark side of the moon”), but I found it far more believable than the psychology of Spellbound, for example. I really felt Rose’s anguish here. All that being said, the entire movie is still really about Manny, and how he deals with two tragedies that befall him.
James: Oh man, you are so wrong. Sure, I can see how this is supposed to make me feel, and I can see what this or that meant, or whatever, but the fact remains that it didn’t work for me. Oh well. But I, too, drew a comparison between The Wrong Man and Spellbound. As it turns out, I didn’t like the psychology of either.
Jason: But this is a true story. This really happened. I gather from the bio that Hitch and his team did an incredible amount of research to make sure the film adhered as closely as possible to reality. Just out of curiosity, did you watch this film as a fictional narrative or as a true story? I think I watched it as a story first, but I was fascinated by the true-crime elements later. Even so, is it fair to say about one of the film’s facts, “It didn’t work for me”? I’m just asking this out of curiosity.
James: Are you serious? Just because a movie is based on a true story doesn’t mean I can’t say, “It doesn’t work for me.” I mean, Hitchcock still had creative control to add dialog or scenes to help move everything forward. There’s no way he knew exactly what was actually said, when and how. So he could’ve made the wife’s crawl into insanity a bit more realistic or plausible.
Jason: No, I didn’t say that. I asked, out of curiosity, whether we can say “It doesn’t work for me” about one of the actual facts of the case. I see now that you’re talking about the way Hitch portrayed it, but at first, it sounded as if you objected to that element of the “plot,” which I don’t think is a valid complaint with a true story.
James: All right, all right. What did you think of the way the cops take Manny around to local shops, so that the proprietors can attempt to identify him as the robber? That was a great sequence, but I wondered how close to reality it was. I mean, would the police do that? Even Hitchcockian police?
Jason: Apparently, the part of the film in which the cops drag Manny from crime scene to crime scene is also based on fact. This all preconfigured the Miranda ruling, so police were a little more hard-nosed back then.
Jason: Here’s something I found interesting in the reading: Hitch’s insistence on researching the actual story extended to the point at which he filmed in the real settings and used some of the real people involved in the actual incident. For example, he used the actual asylum and some of the personnel there. These are hallmarks of Italian neo-realism, and you can tell he was strongly influenced by that movement.
James: Interesting that he used real people. But why? I understand the neo-realism movement, but I just don’t understand the need for it. I mean, what does it help in the film? I didn’t know they weren’t actors, and it doesn’t bother me one way or the other. So what’s the point? I can understand that he’d want to make the film as real as possible so he’d shoot it in the same city and make sure he researched it to get everything just right, but I don’t understand anything beyond that.
Jason: I just think Hitch wanted to recreate the story as realistically as possible, with as few cinematic devices as possible, except where he couldn’t resist. As he spent more and more time researching, he thought it would be effective to involve some of the actual people involved. All in the name of authenticity. Of course, that damn ending undoes all of that, so there you go. But it’s still unexpected for Hitch to use so little artifice and flair in this movie.
Jason: Another thing: The Wrong Man is easily Hitch’s most Kafkaesque story, with its emotional landscapes conveyed through its cramped urban setting and even the symbol of elevated trains, which perhaps suggest that Manny is at some lower, hell-like level.
James: Man, I don’t buy that. Can’t a train just be a train? I mean, Hitch likes trains.
Jason: Dude, you really flinch when you hear the word “symbol,” don’t you? I know you have an anxiety about symbolism, but I think there’s usually something there. In this case, yes, Hitch has a lifelong love of trains, and he’s used them in many of his films, but this is the first time we’ve seen an elevated train. Do you think, even subconsciously, he meant to convey something there? He very purposefully created the attorney’s office set in the shadow of that train, so that while Manny is talking about his predicament, the train is rumbling above him. You don’t think there’s anything to that, even in the slightest?
James: I’m all for symbols when it’s not a complete stretch. I mean, I can see where you’re coming from, sure. I can see the elevated train as a symbol, but only if you’re looking hard for it. I guess I just don’t buy too many “symbols” because they tend to reach. I think if you watch a film or read a book often enough, and do research, and study, then you can find a symbol in just about everything. I can fully understand religious symbolism, or the use of twins/twos throughout a movie, or whatever, but an elevated train showing that Manny is in hell? I don’t think so.
Jason: Well, we’ve had a few discussions about symbolism in this project, so no sense going through all that again. I just think it’s worth considering every idea, and even if you could talk to Hitch, he might deny it, but I’m sure he did a lot of things completely unconsciously. Which sometimes results in the most fascinating uses of symbolism . . . it’s as if it’s coming straight from the subconscious mind, which is appropriate for this living-nightmare film.
James: Hey, if it works for you, more power to you. If it makes for a more robust, richer experience, I’m glad you spotted it and that it adds to your enjoyment.
James: So, what did you think of Hitchcock’s opening monologue? Do you know if his TV show was already going at this time?
Jason: Hey, that’s a good point. The intro definitely echoes his introductions to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which was being filmed at this point. I like that we have this intro in place of a cameo, which wouldn’t have been appropriate in this deadly serious film. And I like how the true-story elements are emphasized.
James: I liked the way it was filmed, all in darkness and long shadows.
Jason: Did you notice how, when Manny walks into the insurance office early in the film and stands at the teller window, the bars of the window make it appear as if he’s behind jail bars? That’s a cinematic trick that’s not entirely in line with the gritty style Hitch is going for, but I like those little touches.
James: Hmm, I didn’t notice those bars at the insurance place. However, I loved how downright angry I felt toward those women. Stupid women. I mean, Manny doesn’t really look much like the real robber, as we eventually see, and yet they all talk themselves into believing Manny’s the one.
Jason: The great thing about this sequence, to me, is that we’re not entirely sure, as an audience, whether Manny is innocent at that point. I mean, he walks in a bit suspiciously, almost cautiously, and those ladies are so sure of themselves that you start thinking, well, maybe he is guilty. That, plus Rose’s line when she finds out, “I knew it was something like that,” and I was left with a little doubt. But yeah, in the end, they just wanted to nail someone so bad that they accused Manny without really thinking.
James: See, I had my doubts, but for different reasons. I thought everything was going to somehow tie into his horse-track gambling. When he tells Rose that he just “plays along” with the races in the paper, I thought for sure he’d actually lost lots of money.
Jason: So you felt a little doubt, too. Interesting. There’s also the scene when Lt. Bowers (Harold Stone) asks Manny to write the words from the stick-up note. Manny writes a note that’s very similar to the actual note, including some missing letters. My doubts about Manny grew with that scene.
James: I thought the detectives were going to lose the original, then compare the two notes that Manny had just written—and find obvious similarities.
Jason: Funny, I thought the same thing about the note, at least until the detectives made it clear which was the original. But after that, I was left doubting Manny. Of course, the title led me to believe that he is, in fact, the wrong man, so the doubt was never really strong. But it was there.
James: You know, that leads me to wonder if The Wrong Man is the best title for this film. It seems that for one reason or another, Hitch included a red herring or two to make you question Manny’s innocence. So, if he indeed wanted that, why title it the way he did?
Jason: You’re right, perhaps it’s not the best title. I just read that Hitch deliberately left out some information that pointed to Manny’s innocence, to heighten the tension. If he did that, why not choose a different title to leave room for doubt?
James: Fortunately, the film ends on a good note when the real robber is arrested.
Jason: Reading Hitchcock/Truffaut, I was surprised by an argument that Truffaut and Hitch had. In this film, Hitch took a real stab at the cinema verité style of Italian cinema of the time. (I’ve seen a few films from that period, most notably The Bicycle Thief, which follows one penniless man through a day in which he tries to find his stolen bicycle. We see every mundane moment, and we feel his hopelessness.) I can see how Hitch tried to emulate that style, and personally I think he was very successful, but Truffaut thinks the entire film should have been filmed in a stark documentary style, with no cinematic intrusion, such as the window bars I mentioned, and the swirling camera in the prison cell, which “visualizes” Manny’s turmoil. What do you think?
James: I can see the case for both lines of reasoning. It’s hard to say, since we have what we have. As far as the swirling camera, I liked that scene. But I think Truffaut had a good point. I wonder if the film would’ve been even more powerful had it been shot more like a documentary. Hmmmm, interesting. I think it’s fairly close to that as it is, but with only a few intrusions.
Jason: Yeah, when you think about it, at least from our perspective, the only real Hitch flourishes with the camera are that prison shot and the whole Jesus dissolve at the end. Well, and also the tacked-on happy ending, which makes me hot under the collar. But Truffaut thought the camera should have been just stationary, watching him. No cuts to the feet in the van, for example. No camera work that might guide the emotion of the audience. It’s an interesting thought, but personally, I think Truffaut simply wanted a different, more Italian film. And I think Hitch made a better film than a European realist might have. Have you seen The Bicycle Thief? I can appreciate its experimentation, but it’s a bore.
James: I haven’t seen The Bicycle Thief. Sounds pretty boring. I think to say that he wanted The Wrong Man to be more documentary-like would mean he wanted a completely different film. And that’s just not right. I can see how a documentary feel would be cool in certain instances, but c’mon, Hitch’s flourishes are great. They add a little personality to the film.
Jason: We’ve mentioned the similarities to Spellbound, but another comparison I would make is to I Confess. Both movies, of course, have the “wrong man” theme, and a sense of tragedy and hopelessness. Both are starkly told, in black-and-white, and rather humorless. And both deal pretty heavily with Catholicism. Especially toward the end, Manny is mumbling prayers to himself, rubbing his rosary beads. In fact, this is the one aspect of the film I didn’t really like: Manny, at the end, praying fervently before a picture of Jesus. And God overtly answers his prayers, revealing the identity of the “right man.” This whole ending doesn’t seem in tune with the rest of the film, which is so neo-realistic. Suddenly, Hitch resorts to cinematic flourishes, with the dissolve from Manny to the real criminal, and seems to say that God wouldn’t condemn an innocent man. There’s something annoying about Hitch interjecting his reaffirmation of faith in what has been a very straightforward, restrained narrative.
James: I hear what you’re saying about the whole “Jesus Saves” thing thrown in at the end. Part of me actually liked it, though, because Manny’s mom told him to pray for strength. This tells me even more powerfully that his faith is an important aspect in his life, just as the rosary did. And since this is a real story, based on fact, I’m assuming that Manny felt that the Lord saved him, that he prayed to God, and God made things right. At least, that’s how Manny sees it. So in that regard, I liked the ending. As a matter of fact, the more I think about that as being Manny’s perception of the whole thing, the more I like it.
Jason: Want to talk about Henry Fonda? I think he made a fantastic Everyman. (Curious coincidence that the real-life name of this “everyman” is Manny.) More important, I think, Fonda has this great expression of fear and uncertainty. You can see it all just broiling under the surface.
James: Fonda makes this movie. He’s brilliant. I love the fact that Manny has money problems and a family, just like all of us. He’s more the Everyman than any other Hitch character (at least on the surface). Watching him in that first interrogation was wrenching. I could feel his surprise and anger and fright. The only problem I had was that he wasn’t a foreigner like the rest of his family. I’m assuming his family is Italian? But he’s not.
Jason: He’s definitely playing an Italian-American (appropriate, considering the fusion of Italian and American filmmaking styles). And that’s not something I really bought. His mother, yeah, but he looked pretty whitebread. But he sure brought the right emotion to the part. I’m thinking right now of the scene when he makes bail and is released. Outside the jail, he practically passes out with emotional relief. He also has a powerful scene with his son at home, just afterward.
James: Yeah, Fonda was spectacular. You could really see what he was thinking in this film. Should I assume that you enjoyed Vera Miles’ performance?
Jason: Yes, you should. This is Miles’ first Hitch flick, and she’s another actress that he tried to groom in the Grace Kelly mode. She appeared in his TV show at least once, and of course, she would later appear in Psycho. Their relationship never matured into what he had with Kelly, though, and she ended up resenting the way Hitch tried to groom her.
James: Vera Miles was only okay in this movie, if you ask me. Hell, what am I saying? I didn’t get her character at all. I’m not saying I hated it or anything, but her distance and zombie-like scenes were a little over the top somehow. I don’t know. I still haven’t figured out what I didn’t like about her.
Jason: This is so interesting that we’ve come away with such polar-opposite opinions of the Rose character. Personally, I thought she knocked it out of the park. I think it’s an amazing, tortured performance. There are moments when she’s downright haunting. (Incidentally, she’s in one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, “Mirror Image,” from the first season.)
James: I think there wasn’t enough build-up for me to accept Rose. It wasn’t enough to say she snapped. Oh well. Maybe next time.
Jason: I know you’re not impressed with the whole Rose narrative, but how about the scene in which she hits Manny and breaks her dresser mirror, which then reflects his shattered reflection? That reflection nicely conveys Rose’s shattered image of Manny in her mind.
James: Oh man, that’s another stretch. Hahahaha. Maybe if I liked her, I could go with that. I did really like how this family starts off so broke, and then throughout the film they find themselves needing more and more money—for example, for the lawyer, Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle) and for the asylum. Did Rose ever get her impacted wisdom teeth pulled?
Jason: No, Rose never did get her teeth taken care of. Speaking of Rose, here’s a great shot I just had to mention: Manny getting hauled away from his home, and we just get a glimpse of Rose in the kitchen, who’s unaware of what’s happening. Nice sense of helplessness to that shot.
James: Great moment.
Jason: You know what else I really liked about this film? The on-location New York shooting. There’s some gorgeous photography in this flick.
James: I really liked the location stuff too. Seems that Hitch’s films are really starting to open up. They seem to be a part of the real world somehow now that they include location shooting. I for one applaud him for heading away from the soundstage.
Jason: Okay, let’s talk about the ending. That final tacked-on card about how Rose recovered two years later is a lie. Warner’s insisted that the film have a happy ending, when in fact, Rose never really recovered, and the family lived with the experience to the bitter end. This is the worst case of a forced happy ending that I can think of. I mean, tacking an obviously cheerful ending onto a piece of fiction is one thing, but actually lying about the end of a true story is completely different. I hated that card, as well as the happy shot of the family in Florida, and I hate Warner’s for demanding it.
James: That ending is the worst. I mean, it feels worse than just tacked on. It actually feels false. If those events were true, why wouldn’t Hitch show it? I mean, why end the film on a down note, then add the card? It ruined the ending. And as you said, it’s not even true, which gets on my nerves even more. Lame, lame, lame.
Jason: Can you imagine if The Wrong Man had ended truthfully? I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that Warner’s demanded the happy ending, but I thought Hitch would have had enough clout to avoid it, or at least come up with a better solution. I don’t know, is it realistic to expect a film company in the 1950s to release such a downer film, with a bleak ending that leaves a main character in a nuthouse? It would have been like the ending of Seven.
James: I guess it would have been a lot to ask at that time.
Jason: Here’s something interesting from the reading: Many people think of The Wrong Man as a weird departure for Hitch, but if you think about it, it’s actually a logical link between The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo. In each successive film, Hitch focuses more on the nature of identity, mental breakdown, madness, and loss of control. These ideas germinate in The Man Who Knew Too Much and find full force in Vertigo, with The Wrong Man acting as an effective bridge between the two.
James: Wow, look at your brain kick in to overdrive. Nice. Interesting that we have three films in a row that focus on identity. Hmmm, good pickup. Is it possible that the author meant that the film was a departure due to the serious nature of The Wrong Man?
Jason: Oh yeah, I’m sure that’s what occurs to people first, because it is quite different, as far as style and mood. But when you look closer, it actually fits into the filmography just fine.
James: So, tell me, since Manny posted bail but was proven innocent, does he get that money back?
Jason: Good question. I would think not.
Jason: What did you think of Bernard Herrmann’s score? I think it added to the haunting, stark quality of the story. It was really methodical and spare, and yet it also enhanced Manny’s fear and emotion. Did you notice it?
James: Of course. Herrmann is one of the best composers of all time. I made note of the score a number of times. He totally helped add to the mood, particularly in key sequences, such as when the police first grab Manny, during the ride to jail, and so on. Good stuff.
Jason: Did you notice the stairwell symbolism in the mental institution? The doctor and nurse gently guide Rose up the stairs toward her fate.
James: Ah, more stairs. Didn’t catch that.
Jason: One thing we never brought up is that The Wrong Man is obviously the ultimate treatment of Hitch’s age-old fear of the police, which began when his father, according to the legend, allowed little 5-year-old Hitch to be locked in a jail cell for a few minutes, for some trivial little misbehavior. The event scarred him for life, and he’s been dealing with the fear through many of these movies. But this one’s the pinnacle.
James: Ah, how did we not bring that up? I wonder in what ways his experience helped him with movies like this? I mean, does he try to recreate the feelings he had? I wonder what types of memories he had or could remember. I bet he mostly just remembered the emotion of it, or maybe some vague idea of what it was really like. But if it was that traumatic, it could explain the ease with which he could recreate that experience in his films.
Jason: In some of his movies, he dealt with his fear in a very straightforward way, as in this film and in I Confess, and in other movies, of course, he casts the police as buffoons, robbing them of any menace.
James: I wanted to like this movie. Actually, I did like most of it. It just fell flat in the second half. And although I’ve enjoyed this discussion, it’s much easier to talk about something you fully enjoy.
Jason: I think The Wrong Man is unfairly forgotten and magnificently structured. In my mind, the film approaches the level of classical tragedy—yet another very interesting, thought-provoking surprise from Hitch.
James: Well, I for one can’t wait to watch The Trouble with Harry again.