In 1957, Henry Fonda appeared in two widely divergent depictions of the American criminal justice system. 12 Angry Men, arguably the better known of the duo, displayed the actor’s gift for embodying rhetoric and sharpness of reason, which in this case allow him to convince eleven jurors to look past their prejudices and acquit an youth wrongly accused of murder. The Wrong Man, on the other hand, tells its story through the point of view of the accused, with Fonda playing a nightclub sideman mistakenly arrested for armed robbery. Long a high school and community theater staple, the former constitutes a call for using reason when considering the fate of those from outside the circle of one’s social familiarity. The latter, to the contrary, charts the heartless functionality of a system whose actions are entirely subject to the vicissitudes of fate.
The Wrong Man is based on a true crime story first published in The New York Times chronicling the travails of Christopher Emmanuel (‘Manny”) Balestrero, who was almost convicted of a series of robberies in the early 1950s. Alfred Hitchcock purchased the story, and along with writers Maxwell Anderson and Angus McPhail, fashioned a methodical procedural from the case, shaving off many of the melodramatic embellishments often associated with the director’s work. Anyone familiar with Hitchcock could immediately see his attraction to the material: he often recollected that, when he was a child, his father once locked him in jail for several hours after he misbehaved, and he felt that the shame and fear from this incident shaped his artistic development. This film presents the most naturalistic and unadorned version of that traumatic experience that the director ever committed to celluloid.
In the film, Balestrero is a struggling musician with a sick wife (Rose, in an arguably career-best turn by Vera Miles), a small gambling habit, and mounting bills, which forces him to head downtown to cash in a life insurance policy to cover his obligations. His presence provokes some unease around the office, as he is identified as a man who had held up the office three months before. Soon, Balestrero is whisked off by a couple of NYPD detectives on a perp walk through bars, restaurants, and convenience stores. They ultimately charge him with armed robbery, and he undergoes the rigorous process of arrest and confinement, shown by Hitchcock in meticulous detail. Things only get worse after he makes bail. More witnesses incriminate, alibis disappear, and an inadvertent spelling mistake on a writing sample furthers the impression that Balestrero is the actual robber. By a lucky twist of fate, an outburst by a frustrated juror mandates a mistrial, which allows for enough time to elapse for the actual culprit to be apprehended. In the meantime, an incalculable psychic debt mounts, with Balestrero losing his savings and reputation and his wife suffering a nervous breakdown.
In comparing 12 Angry Men to the Wrong Man one is struck to the degree by which Sidney Lumet and Hitchcock mold Fonda’s screen personas to fit the material in different ways. The former, taking his cue from the actor’s pre-war classics like Young Mr. Lincoln and The Ox-Bow Incident, builds the protagonist’s “everyman” persona into the model of civic leadership, combining a stillness in physicality with elegant plainspokenness. The audience, like the jurors on camera, gravitates towards him out of fascination with his quiet assertion of strength and purpose. Hitchcock preserves Fonda’s bodily reserve, but he uses this trait to emphasize the actor’s reaction to events beyond his control. In The Wrong Man Balestrero becomes the object of institutional and metaphysical forces that overwhelm individual human agency. He may be a simple man, but he’s aware that oratorical dexterity and deductive logic won’t solve his predicament (the latter, in fact, would only indict him). Subsequently, the film’s expository information comes from figures of institutional authority, namely detectives, lawyers, and psychiatrists. Fonda holds our attention as listeners, and perhaps more importantly, as viewers. He is the audience surrogate.
Hitchcock’s visual blueprint for achieving this effect, as one might expect by viewing the whole of the director’s work, places the camera from Balestrero’s point of view. This enhances the audience’s empathy for Fonda by emphasizing his passivity. Many sequences, like the trial, were filmed on location in Queens with the master shot set at the defendant’s chair. Likewise, Hitchcock juxtaposes close-ups of the actor’s face with small objects determined by his line of sight, most notably handcuffs, shoes, and a set of rosary beads. Occasionally, he transfers these point-of-view techniques to other characters, such as the robbery victims at the insurance company and Balestrero’s attorney (Anthony Quayle), who is the first to notice Rose’s deteriorating mental state. Hitchcock deftly integrates his subjective visual style with a more documentary-like, poetic realist aesthetic. The question remains, however, as to why the director, known for his meticulously crafted comic thrillers, chose to make a film so dour and shorn of big suspense pieces.
Perhaps Hitchcock was embarking on a quest for critical respectability. Long considered a master of emotional manipulation in the service of frothy suspense, his films generally eschewed the grubbier New York aesthetic that received critical accolades in the 50s. While the film got good reviews, the public was not very receptive to its more downbeat, observational tone and lack of grand setpieces. The picture evokes its time and place, however, in more unsettling ways than merely wallowing in urban grit. Public intellectuals at the time expressed concern about the effect that corporate culture, and the systematic organization of bureaucracies, was exercising in society at the time. As white collar occupations demanded a new form of professionalism adhering to new codes of conformity and regimented rules of instrumentalist thinking, sociologists like William Whyte and David Reisman bemoaned the loss of individualism in American life, and expressed deep concerns about the viability of the moral fabric of communities when confronted by the rise of pure rationalism.
Such concerns found expression in Cold War ideologies equating bureaucracy to authoritarianism. Narratives depicting the loss of freedom to the utility of political necessity, such as 1984 and Darkness at Noon, cautioned readers to the threat that groupthink posed to traditional notions of freedom. By the early 1960’s, Hannah Arendt, when covering the trial of Nazi functionary Adolph Eichmann, coined a new term describing the apparently benign means by which moral accountability was undermined by purely mechanistic forms of bureaucratic functionality: the banality of evil.
The Wrong Man, like most Hitchcock films, is not explicitly political, but it does anticipate the overall zeitgeist concerning of the impersonality of systems. The detectives who interrogate Balestrero, for example, inform their suspect of his rights and their process to determine his guilt or innocence in a calm, non-threatening manner. Their method of inquiry, however, excludes any possibility that unpredictable coincidence or mistaken identity might factor in to their investigation. Their conclusions are logically correct, though factually false.
Where the film seems evasive, to our modern eyes, is how it makes the protagonist incapable of changing the course of his fate. Left at the mercy of an indifferent society after a mistrial,Balestrero is encouraged by his mother to pray for strength, and in pure Eisenhower-era fashion, divine intervention occurs with the citizen’s arrest of his doppelganger. Although free from unjust imprisonment, the protagonist still must deal with the lingering impact of the ordeal on his wife’s mental stability. This darker ending is unfortunately mitigated by a title card before the end credit, stating that the care Rose received at the psychiatric facility cured her breakdown. The movie seems unsure how deeply it wants to commit to the notion that professionalized institutions lack the capability of determining certainty due to their dismissal of the randomness and unpredictability of the universe’s workings .
It does imply, however, that Hollywood’s romantic notion of the movie star as a charismatic voice of conscience might be outmoded, and that a new hero, one who is both empathetic yet lacking in the ability to effect the resolution of his own dilemmas (much less society’s) might best reflect the contemporary conditions of modern man. Hitchcock integrated these ideas more forcefully upon returning to more melodramatic fare with Psycho and Frenzy over the following two decades. Today we see this iteration of alienation performed throughout the films of the Coen Brothers, with The Man Who Wasn’t There perfectly capturing The Wrong Man’s blending of subjectivity and environmental detail without succumbing to thematic equivocation. In the long run, this mid-level Hitchcock entry constitutes a noteworthy artistic stretch for the filmmaker, even though it’s a bit tepid in meeting our expectations for how the story should play out.