Alfred Hitchcock always was a cruel and calculating director. Even his most affecting pictures --Vertigo, Notorious -- have the disturbing undercurrent of sneering manipulation and condescension that served as identifiable a trademark of the director's work as his innovative camera work and the (possibly deliberate) lack of believability of effects. But The Wrong Man is cynical even by his standards, which would put it in the running of the most downbeat American film ever made. Perhaps that is because, as Hitchcock himself tells us at the start, walking in a barely lit studio stage in total silhouette -- a precursor to the film's aesthetic structure -- "This is a true story, every word of it. And yet it contains elements that are stranger than any of the fiction that has gone into many of the thrillers that I've made before."
Now, that's not entirely true (Rope was based on the story of Leopold and Loeb), but the clear implication of Hitchcock's statement, at least in retrospect of the film's events, is that real life is far more malicious and abusive than he could ever be. Just compare it to Rope: Rope existed to fuel Hitchcock's aesthetic ambitions. Not just the director's first film in Technicolor, Rope is primarily remembered today for its long-take structure, the division of a 80-minute feature into just 10 cuts. Hitch approaches The Wrong Man from the opposite direction: in black-and-white, this case of mistaken identity -- a common theme, of course, in the director's oeuvre -- with such distance and workmanlike staging that one might reasonably suspect, at first, that he'd been fired during production and replaced by a hired gun.
One can see the difference between The Wrong Man and Hitchcock's usual whirlwind thrillers from the beginning, as the opening credits play over the banal image of a ritzy club, an unmoving shot of patrons dining on overpriced, under-portioned food and sipping on outrageously expensive drinks. Once the credits end, the camera moves to show the house band playing the light lounge music that fills this place. The bass player of this soul-crushing band, the kind of outfit that exists only as high-class elevator music, is Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero, a.k.a. Manny. Hitchcock does not push in on Manny as he packs up his bass and leaves, nor when he returns home to find his wife unable to sleep. Only after we hear of her impacted wisdom teeth and the need for Manny to take out a loan on her insurance policy to cover surgery does Hitchcock significantly move the camera within a shot, zooming in on the lovebirds as they set aside their money issues and recount how lucky they are to have each other.
It's one of the few changing shots in the entire movie, especially of the first act, which proceeds at a deliberately leaden pace. Hardly anything of interest happens as Manny breaks up a minor quibble between his two young sons, promises his mother that he'll visit his sick father and engages in other quotidian activities. Hitchcock ingeniously withholds the plot until just before Manny himself figures out what's about to happen to him: he heads to the insurance office to check his wife's policy and see how much they can borrow, and Hitchcock cuts to a closeup of the teller spotting Manny and reacting with inaudible terror.
Suddenly, the movie shifts gears, as the teller urgently but calmly makes her way to her co-workers and begins whispering that Manny looks like "that man" who robbed them twice. Hitchcock's previous emotional and spatial distance from Manny allows him to suddenly play up the suspense the teller feels when Manny reaches into his coat pocket and produces...the sheet of paper containing his wife's insurance policy. Some of the other workers come close to screaming, and one briefly faints, but the teller manages to keep her cool long enough to give Manny the price he came for and send him on his way.
The speed continues to firmly escalate from here, as authorities apprehend Manny and tell him that he fits a description, though they save the full accusation for later. To test the validity of the office workers' claims, the detectives take Manny to various stores also held up by the robber and have him pace back and forth and return to the car while the owners talk with the cops. Manny doesn't understand what's going on, he wants to call his wife just to let her know that he'll be late, but the detectives keep taking him around town. At the precinct, they ask him to write down a copy of a note the robber passed to the insurance teller during his heist, and the notes contain a rough similarity. So, the detective tells Manny and lets him write another one, and in his nervousness he misspells a word. The same word, in fact, that the robber misspelled. Oh, Manny.
Now, Hitch's pacing makes sense. The Wrong Man started out so slowly, yet Manny finds himself all but convicted with alarming speed. "The innocent have nothing to fear," as more than one cop assures Manny, but that is ludicrous. What could be more terrifying than facing a prison sentence for a crime you didn't commit? (Note that, today, cops often use a suspect's anxiety to exonerate him; it's the guilty who resign themselves to their capture.) Hitchcock uses Manny's plight, and the deep, sudden impact the world makes upon him when it collapses onto his shoulders, to show how insane the system is. A trial almost seems an afterthought when the police chief attempts to strongarm Manny into confessing based on the evidence that look so damning on paper -- handwriting samples, multiple witnesses -- yet the audience can clearly see how such "proof" isn't so solid. The handwriting "gotcha" is outrageous in its uselessness, and the witnesses who most vociferously claim that Manny is the robber are so terrified of him that they can barely look at him; clearly, they can only see the rough details in the same panic that allows them to emphatically assure authorities that they've got the right man.
That's what makes the casting of Peter Fonda so perfect. Who better to play a mistaken man than the most innately American of actors; he could be any one of us, or at least us as we like to see ourselves. That makes him both inspiring and fearsome, a dual nature enhanced by Fonda's own lumbering, awkward frame, which conveys both vulnerability and intimidation. A decade before Sergio Leone completely turned Fonda's All-American persona against himself (and the country he represented) in Once Upon a Time in the West, Hitchcock used the actor for a less openly confrontational but more pernicious subversion of Fonda's charm.
Hitchcock was, of course, a Brit, which makes the hint of class warfare given to the character seem all the more intentional. Fonda's Manny, a lower middle class schlub who receives meager payments to perform for the gaudy rich in town, draws immediate suspicion because of his occupation. The system values money so much that even the cops, a notoriously underpaid group, see Manny's occupation as sufficient motive for becoming a robber. The poor have been raised with such self-resentment for their social status that they look down upon those on the same rung of the ladder. Seeking to defend himself, Manny must turn to Frank O'Connor, an attorney who believes in his client but sheepishly admits that he does not usually handle criminal cases and will likely be no match for a trained criminal prosecutor; but where else can Manny turn?The stress of the investigation appears to jog Rose so violently that she suddenly sees with terrifying clarity just how infallibly the odds are stacked against them. This revelation sends Rose into a deep depression, and soon she believes that everything happening to Manny is just a way for the powers that be to get to her, and so she not only feels guilty for "bringing" this pressure on Manny but fears for her life as well.
However, compared to the Expressionistic portraits Hitch drew of many of his psychologically addled characters, Rose's madness never progresses outside her desperate eyes, as anything bigger would be a release. That's the last thing the director wants to give us; even Bernard Herrmann, that vibrant and thrilling composer so perfectly suited for Hitchcock's merciless roller coaster rides, turns in a subdued score for The Wrong Man. The film is filled with images of bars, separating the insurance teller from the clients, the endless partitions in the jail where Manny could wind up for many years, bars that emphasize how hollow the place is even as it makes prison into a cramped nightmare. Nearly every scene features so much use of shadow that one begins to wonder if the film was originally in color until the unremitting blackness in each scene drew all the other colors into its consuming maw. Only in a few choice moments -- a spiraling camera movement as Manny swoons in his jail cell from the fear, a pair of match cuts that gives the illusion that the camera zoomed in through the cell door's peephole and back out again -- does the director use any of the camera trickery for which he is renowned. But the film's most memorable shot simply involves a perfectly photographed moment, when an impassioned Rose hits Manny and cracks a mirror. Hitch then cuts to an image of Manny's face, broken along the line of the cracked looking glass as if splitting the innocent man from the guilty look-alike while overlapping the two to make them one person. Bergman would take this idea to its zenith with Persona, but this much simpler take is no less jarring and contemplative. This bleakness, a sense of evil that seeps into the frame even without the director's usual bag of emotional sucker-punches, imparts not necessarily the world as it truly is -- even the hardest cynic would have difficulty accepting this vision as truth -- but Hitchcock's view of it. By coldly, flatly showing us what he felt, he could use his next film, Vertigo, to visualize how he felt it.
This despair, so much more troubling when presented sans sleight of hand, builds to one of the most cynical endings in cinematic history. That the police capture the true robber and acquit Manny matters little, as Hitch places the final scene in the sanitarium where Rose is being treated. At last, Manny has some good news to tell his wife, but she's too far gone, registering her husband's acquittal with catatonic flatness. Of course, Hitchcock never gave Manny the triumphant day in court to prove his innocence: the bassist only gets off when a juror mocks the proceedings and a detective comes by to tell Manny that they caught the real perpetrator. Rose didn't see this happen, but she stresses how what would have been a climactic victory is but a small reversal in the pain heaped upon the family. It is a scathing, brutal denouement, made somehow worse by the textual epilogue that explains Rose's eventual recovery and the family's rebuilding. As with the acquittal, such a happy occurrence is, for Hitchcock at least, but a small reprieve, the eye of the storm of life. Perhaps that's why The Wrong Man remains relatively unseen among the mainstream then and now: most of Hitch's films were just as bleak, but, in retrospect, maybe his inability to dance around it with his cinematic lies was his way of doing us a favor.