Christopher Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is a pretty ordinary man. He makes a living playing bass fiddle in a band, and takes his modest pay home to his wife and two sons, barely scraping by with the bumps life throws into the road. Manny’s kids are learning to be musicians like their father, he dutifully visits his ailing parents, and his wife Rose (Vera Miles) suffers from toothache, which means they need to borrow money against her life insurance to pay for the dentist bill. When Manny attempts to obtain this money, his life is suddenly throw upside-down as he finds himself caught in the midst of an incredible case of mistaken identity.A running theme through Hitchcock’s works is that of an innocent man being accused of something he didn’t do, and the dramatic effect it has on his life. North By Northwest and To Catch A Thief show the more exciting, thrilling ramifications this can have, but films like I Confess and The Wrong Man take a much more serious tone, especially when you consider that the story here is actually a true one, and is so remarkable that Hitchcock foregoes his traditional in-film cameo to instead appear before the story begins, to explain that whilst the story is true, it contains elements far stranger that all the thrillers he has made before. This is certainly true, as the story is an often unbearably frustrating tale of a man caught in a web he has no control over, flowing through a system he is powerless to escape.It’s films like this that are the reason I’m going through my various lists (this, so you know, is not just a Hitchcock film but also amongst the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die). I’ve owned The Wrong Man on DVD for many years, but had often dismissed it due to its seemingly melodramatic, over-stylised cover, and the unexciting blurb on the back. However, now that I’ve all but forced myself to sit down and watch it, I feel like I’ve discovered an absolute gem of a movie that I’m incredibly annoyed I didn’t watch before. The Wrong Man is fantastic, keeping me on the edge of my seat throughout.It’s an incredible story, regardless of whether it’s true or not. When Manny visits the insurance firm to enquire about his wife’s policy, the teller immediately looks at him suspiciously, as though she either recognises him, or suspects he is up to no good. She reports him to her manager, who confirms her suspicions with another colleague – that Manny recently visited the branch and robbed them for $71, just one of a string of hold-ups across town, dating back a few years. The police are alerted and, just as Manny is ascending the steps to his house, he is apprehended and taken down to the station for questioning, before being paraded through town to be identified by all the former victims. We know for sure that Manny didn’t do it – and not just because the film is called The Wrong Man. Prior to his recognising he is painted as a saint, a friendly and neighbourly guy with a local diner and a usual order, a family man who always knows the right thing to say to his squabbling kids or concerned wife, and who always has time for his parents, no matter how busy his day may be. Hell, his initial concerns when he is arrested are for his family, who will surely be worried because he has never once been late home without calling ahead first.Deep down we know that surely Manny will find a way out – as the police officers tell him, an innocent man has nothing to be worried about – but with so many fingers pointing in his direction, and everything else seemingly stacked up against him (his alibi is paper thin, and isn’t helped when a corroborator turns up dead and therefore somewhat unable to testify), a sick feeling begins to set in that maybe his situation won’t be as clean cut as we first assumed.I’ve seen enough recent crime thrillers to anticipate this taking more twists and turns than it actually does – for the most part it’s fairly straightforward, except for an entirely unexpected third act side-plot that isn’t so much of a twist as it’s an unanticipated repercussion of Manny’s accusation. This side dalliance would probably be deemed unnecessary were it not an integral part of the true story, so whilst it does derail the plot slightly, it cannot be faulted for its inclusion. The thing is, there’s not someone out to get Manny, it really is just a case of some people being mistaken or unsure, but believing they are certain of their decision. No characters come off as exaggerated or phony, and for the most part it’s all played with a gritty and depressing realism, but Hitchcock gets some moments of flair with shots like the cracked mirror, or Fonda’s terrified eyes in a jail cell. One moment involving a wildly spinning camera to indicate on-setting madness was a little over the top, but it got the point across.Sound-wise, there’s a clear inspiration to The Godfather by utilising background train noises for moments of heightened tension, for example the clerk heading back to speak to Manny in the insurance office, as now she knows this man is dangerous. Also, the ending is pretty much perfect, wrapping things up nicely, although it picks a point to end on that felt a little unsatisfying until the more gratifying epilogue confirmed that this wasn’t entirely how it all ended up. All in all, I highly recommend watching The Wrong Man, and I don’t understand why it isn’t ranked amongst Hitchcock’s best.
Choose Film 8/10