The Wrong Man (1956) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
On January 14, 1953, Christopher Emannuel Balestrero was arrested for a crime he did not commit. In 1956, Alfred Hitchcock made a film about it.
Perhaps with a desire to appeal to the ”art film crowd” that, as it often is, was calling for realism at the time, Hitchcock toned down his expressionism in favor of a documentary feel. His fidelity to the actual facts of the case has been cited by many critics as a liability – it seems he wished for a different ending to the story. And yet, the primary power of the film comes from the fact that it is a true story, so there’s that to be had.
Its interesting to note two areas where Hitchcock did deviate from the actual events.
According to A Hitchcock Reader, “the weak points of the police investigation, the ease with which Balestrero was able to establish his alibis, and the effectiveness of his attorney have been eliminated from the screenplay.” It also adds the scene of Balestrero praying before a depiction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus while the real criminal is arrested.
Both these alterations have a significant impact on the way belief is portrayed in the film.
None of the factual elements given to the audience should lead us to side with Manny. Early on, we see him looking over the racing results, and although his explanation to his wife about his math game is plausible, it also sounds exactly like the sort of thing a screenplay would have a lying criminal say. We certainly have no idea where Manny was during the dates in question, and his alibis fall through very easily.
And yet Hitchcock clearly conveys the idea that we should be on his side. Everything is told from his point of view, Henry Fonda puts on his good-hearted everyman face, and the story is presented in such a way that the audience is never led to believe – not even for a moment – that Manny is anything but the wrong man.
Despite the handwriting samples, despite the multiple eyewitnesses and despite the lack of exculpatory evidence, everyone who believes Manny is doing right and everyone who disbelieves him is doing wrong.
Manny’s crisis of faith is resolved, as is his Petrine wife’s – although you get the feeling Hitchcock added the postscript title card begrudgingly.
This dynamic is, of course, present in nearly every one of his films. Even when the belief turns out to be naive or unfounded, (i.e., Shadow of a Doubt) it still isn’t morally wrong. The Wrong Man seems to frame it in the most explicitly religious way.
The Wrong Man is #812 on the Top 1000 Films list I’m working on. I’ve now seen 374.