The Wrong Man (1957)
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One night in l953, Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero, a bass player at Manhattan's Stork Club, was walking home when he was accosted by two policemen. The detectives presented Balestrero to several witnesses who identified him as an armed robber, and soon the hapless musician found himself behind bars. Despite his protests of innocence, he stood trial; though the proceeding resulted in a mistrial, his life became a shambles and his wife snapped under the pressure, eventually being committed to a mental hospital. The police did find the criminal before Balestrero's new trial could open, and he was set free, but not before having been put through the machinery of New York's jail and legal system.
Manny Balestrero's story caught the eye of Alfred Hitchcock after reading a Life Magazine article, and it immediately appealed to the director. Hitchcock sought out playwright Maxwell Anderson, on the strength of his stage version of The Bad Seed, but the screenplay that Anderson turned in had an oddly detached quality that was at odds with what Hitch was looking for. The director then turned to screenwriter Angus McPhail to fix the various problems with Anderson's script. The two proceeded to visit all the locations of the story and the real Balestrero's life. In keeping with Hitchcock's scrupulous attention to detail and verisimilitude, the director sought out the Balestrero family's summer resort in upstate New York, and even Ossinning's Greenmont Sanitorium, where the poor Rose Balestrero was committed.
The final result was a picture that was well outside of the fare that Hitch's fans were used to. The Wrong Man (1957) featured no suspenseful chases, no cliffhanger action segments, and not even any of Hitchcock's trademark comic relief. Instead, it took a semi-documentary approach, with Henry Fonda as the bewildered Manny, and Vera Miles as his high-strung, long-suffering wife. Its stark black-and-white look even dispensed with many of Hitch's stylistic trademarks, opting for a nearly newsreel-style authenticity. The result was a movie that was a hit with audiences, but the fact that it was a true story, combined with its subdued tone, made it one of the director's more subtly terrifying films. Surprisingly, critical reception was lukewarm. The New York Times' A.H. Weiler noted, "Frighteningly authentic, the story generates only a modicum of drama", and described Fonda's performance as "disquietingly even". Nonetheless, The Wrong Man is an harrowing film made all the more unnerving by the fact that a quirk of fate could land the viewer in the same predicament as Manny Balestrero.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producer: Alfred Hitchcock, Herbert Coleman (associate)
Screenplay: Maxwell Anderson, Angus MacPhail
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Art Direction: Paul Sylbert
Cast: Henry Fonda (Manny Balestrero), Vera Miles (Rose Balestrero), Anthony Quayle (Frank O'Connor), Harold Stone (Lt. Bowers), John Heldabrand (Tomasini), Doreen Lang (Ann James).
by Jerry Renshaw