Week 38: The Wrong Man (1956), New York City, and Dive Bars

Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

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“This is Alfred Hitchcock speaking. In the past I have given you many kinds of suspense pictures, but this time I would like you to see a different one. The difference lies in the fact that this is a true story, every word of it. And yet it contains elements that are stranger than all the fiction that has gone into many of the thrillers that I have made before.”

Hitchcock speaks these words before The Wrong Man starts, silhouetted against a studio backlot. Audiences expected a certain type of film from Alfred Hitchcock: Entertainment, thrillers, light, enjoyable movie star fun. Now here’s the man himself making the point that this is something new, something true. This is A Serious Film.

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We see Manny Balestero (Henry Fonda) end his day as a bass player at the Stork Club, then take the subway home to Queens, stopping in a diner for coffee. He checks on his wife, who’s having tooth pain, and the next day he goes to an insurance office to see about borrowing money…and that’s when it turns. The women in the insurance office think he’s the man who robbed them a few weeks ago and the police show up at his door to invite him to join them for some questioning. Soon he’s being taken around the city to do a walk through stores that were held up, given a handwriting test, and finally booked for a string of robberies, all on shockingly little information from the police. Fonda and his family know he’s innocent, yet nothing goes their way as they try to find an alibi and the stress of the impending trial takes a heavy mental toll on his wife (Vera Miles).

The Wrong Man is one of Hitchcock’s many almost-great films that remain fascinating because of their success and failures. The documentary parts of the film are riveting, as is the entire point of view of Fonda being interrogated & booked through the NYPD. It’s a horrifying journey to see how easily any one of us could get railroaded into jail over a mistake (in this case, the actual robber looks a lot like Fonda). Hitchcock had always wanted to work with Henry Fonda, and the legendary actor is great here, as his quiet dignity slowly falls into desperation as he can’t fight back against the forces conspiring to keep him in jail. 

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Strangely, Hitchcock isn’t concerned with his usual suspense games in this film. It’s not until the last ten minutes of the movie that we, the audience, have proof that Fonda didn’t actually do it. Granted, the chances of a big star like Fonda turning out to be a cold-blooded thief are small in 1956 Hollywood, but think back to last week’s film, Shadow of a Doubt, where Hitch patiently lays out exactly why we shouldn’t trust Joseph Cotten. In The Wrong Man, Hitch is relying entirely on the charisma of his leading star (as he did in most of his wrong man chase films) to get the audience’s sympathy.

Much is made of Hitchcock taking inspiration from the Italian Neo-realist movement for this film, but to me he’s equally influenced by the strain of gritty, realist crime dramas from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Jules Dassin’s 1948 Naked City (which would inspire the TV show of the same name), Henry Hathaway’s 1948 Call Northside 777, John Huston’s 1950 Asphalt Jungle, Samuel Fuller’s 1953 Pickup on South Street, and many others would be shot on location and exploit the dirt and atmosphere of their surroundings. Plus Dragnet had been on the air as a TV show and a 1954 movie for years, helping to create what we know now as the police procedural. I think it’s very likely that Hitchcock was equally influenced by these films & shows.

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A shot from the end of Jules Dassin’s spectacular “The Naked City”

But most of those films employ shifting viewpoints and different characters; Hitchcock’s grand concept is to make the film entirely from Balestrero’s point of view. Nowhere is this focus more concentrated than in the first forty minutes, and it’s by far the strongest part of the movie. We only know what Fonda experiences and he keeps being told by the police that “It’s nothing for an innocent man to worry about.” Yet he’s paraded through lineups, handwriting tests, and more while the detectives grow certain he’s their man (for an interesting juxtaposition, check out this video of the real Balestrero appearing on “To Tell the Truth” in 1957, including celebrity panelist Dick Van Dyke!)

Hitchcock doesn’t keep up the early documentary approach (which provides a gorgeous view of mid-fifties New York City); but his camera is more invisible than it usually is. Instead of a faux-documentary approach, his camera glides through scenes, turning a master shot into a closeup with mathematical precision. He uses edits as punctuation, as in a great scene with Fonda, Miles, and their defense attorney as Miles is starting to lose her faculties, and the lawyer and Fonda exchange glances over her odd gestures.

There’s only one “Hitchcockian” shot in the whole film, and it’s truly breathtaking. Towards the end of the film, after the mistrial, Fonda is praying in his home. While he quietly mouthes the words and clutches his rosary, Hitchcock half-dissolves to a city street. We can still see Fonda, but we also see a man approaching in the distance. Hitchcock holds on this dissolve as the man walks into a closeup, his face looking almost exactly like Fonda’s, now lining up exactly with Fonda’s, as we dissolve and follow the real criminal.

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The dissolve from Balestrero to the real criminal

In this showy but brilliant shot, Hitchcock explains the whole film to us. Fonda was arrested because this man looks just like him, yet they don’t know each other. And in 1956 to pull off this shot, of a man walking all the way down a street to stop and hold the exact correct pose? To shoot Fonda at the exact same angle so their faces would line up, without the aid of computers or video monitors? It’s an astonishing display of technique.

The film only falters in two areas: First, the portrayal of Fonda & Miles’ relationship. From their first scene together, where this long-married couple coos and hugs like newlyweds to Miles’ very quick mental descent, their relationship is the least convincing part of the film. Either Hitchcock and his writers couldn’t find creative ways to foreshadow her mental problems, or he was worried about straying too far from the facts of the case. It also doesn’t help that at the time of shooting Fonda was 51 years old and Miles was 27.

Which leads me to The Wrong Man’s other flaw: Hitchcock is, for once, so devoted to staying true to the source material that it crippled his storytelling. For example, during the trial, when Fonda is wracked with guilt and tension, a juror stands up to object during the defense attorney’s cross-examination of a witness. A mistrial is declared and Fonda wearily listens as his his attorney explains that they’ll have to go through the whole thing again.

Did that actually happen during the trial? Yes it did. But true or not, it’s wildly anti-climactic and leaves the viewer feeling defeated. Especially when, a few scenes later, the real criminal is caught. Hitchcock could have fudged “reality,” and shown detectives entering the courtroom at a dramatic moment, to say that the real thief had been captured. And Vera Miles’ psychological issues could also have been portrayed with more care. Yet Hitchcock stubbornly insisted that they stick to the facts, even contacting the real Balestreros in Florida, trying to raid their memories for plot details. Miles does the best she can with an underwritten part, but there just isn’t enough detail to make it believable. And by staying so true to the facts, it actually becomes frustrating as a story.

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Fonda grows suspicious of Miles’ mental state

What made Hitchcock, the consummate adapter of other people’s works, want to make a film based so rigidly on fact? Some critics put forward the worship of Neo-realism as a cause, but this doesn’t hold up. Hitchcock was smart enough to know that for all of The Bicycle Thief’s location shooting and use of non-professional actors, it’s still a fiction, written and crafted by Vittorio De Sica and his writers. Hitchcock wasn’t trying to make Neo-realism, he was trying to make a kind of recreation.

Hitchcock was coming off the To Catch a Thief and The Man Who Knew Too Much, big-budget entertainments that, while wildly enjoyable, perhaps didn’t satisfy his cravings to make something more serious. Hitchcock is always slippery in interviews and while he never professed a desire to be taken seriously as an “artist,” I do think that he saw many of the films of the day, work from his peers and the Italians and many others and thought, “I could do that. I want to do that.”

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Hitchcock on the subway, directing Fonda

Hitchcock would often gripe about never winning awards (Rebecca would win the Oscar for Best Picture but the award went to producer David O. Selznick) and the Academy rarely nominated thrillers or action pictures, preferring then as now to nominate Big Important Pictures. I would wager that Hitchcock initially hoped than The Wrong Man might end up as some kind of prestige film, an important social work about law & order. Certainly The Wrong Man has aged better than almost all of the other films nominated for the Academy Awards that year (Best Picture winner: Around the World in 80 Days, Nominees: Friendly Persuasion, The King and I, The Ten Commandments, and potentially the only better film, Giant).

But despite the Hitchcock prologue, audiences and critics didn’t know what to do with The Wrong Man. It wasn’t a flop, but it wasn’t a big hit either. Overseas it was acclaimed as a masterpiece, with Jean-Luc Godard writing about it in his longest piece of film criticism. The movie’s stature would also increase in later years with Martin Scorsese acknowledging it as a major influence on Taxi Driver.

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Hitchcock might have been disappointed in the film’s reception, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t learn anything. He was a master at taking an idea from an unsuccessful film and refining it, turning one picture into a dry run for another. Sabotage’s cross-country adventure chase would culminate in North by Northwest. The substantial use of point of view in Spellbound would be repurposed for the effortless Rear Window. And a few years later,The Wrong Man’s gritty, black and white cinematography would become one of the most important parts of Psycho.

***

I’m writing the first draft of this essay in what my girlfriend and I jokingly call “the office.” It’s a local bar called Kelly’s. I’ve been coming here for years, and it’s one of my favorite bars in Pittsburgh. Lately I’ve been writing here on Monday nights because they don’t have wifi, which it makes it easier to concentrate.

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The office

Plus I like the environment. The walls are all red, the booths a diamond-patterned black and white, and it’s dark. It looks like a bar from a film noir movie, down to the neon sign out front. There’s almost always some kind of punk rock playing: Ramones, Stiff Little Fingers, Social Distortion, etc. The staff know me and don’t care if I take up a table with my laptop. The drinks are cheap and strong (including a daily $4 cocktail), and the mac & cheese is a dirty guilty pleasure.

Kelly’s reminds me of my favorite bar in Brooklyn, the now-gone Moe’s. It was in Fort Greene near my job and it was constantly changing. One night the crowd would be packed with yuppie scum like myself. The next night it would be a hip-hop crowd jamming to the Kung-fu movies projected in the back room. After that would be an even rowdier group, the teacher’s union post-meeting party full of underpaid teachers ready to throw down. Or it would tip towards a gay bar, a caribbean bar, whatever. Every night was different and everyone was welcome. I spent many a happy hour turned into an evening there and I don’t regret a second of it.

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Moe’s in all its dim, neon glory

More’s also had legendary karaoke nights. Peaches, our local drag queen, would get up in sweatpants and sing Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and MEAN every word of it. A musical theater student from Jamaica got up and sang Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” with some real gospel and brought the house down. I was known for an off-key but enthusiastic version of Prince’s “Kiss.” My friend Olivia watched some poor girl stumble through Blondie’s “One Way or the Other” for a minute before getting up and pushing her out of the way to finish the song herself. People cheered.

I miss Moe’s. It’s gone now, both physically and metaphorically. Not only has it closed, it also existed for me only in that specific place and time in history. For right now at least, Kelly’s feels a little bit like that. The mix of patrons is close to the same; I’ve become friends with all kinds of people from hanging out here.  But more than anything else, I feel at home. Sitting here as the world drives by and people head home while the guitar intro to the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” starts playing. I feel like I’ve found a place where I belong.

I guess The Wrong Man got me thinking about myself and how I do miss New York. I still don’t think I’d ever move back; the Brooklyn from 2004 isn’t there anymore. Neither is the East Village from 1994. And that’s okay; we all like to pretend that things were better back in our day, but mainly it’s just different.

I like to think I always carry a little of New York around with me. That I can look back and take things I loved from that period and carry them forward with me. Take only what you need, and leave the rest. An innocent man has nothing to fear.

The Wrong Man is not streaming on any services, but can be rented on Amazon or iTunes, or rented from your library.

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