Wrong Man, The (Blu-ray Review)8 Feb, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Henry Fonda, Vera Miles, Anthony Quayle.
Boy, was Hitchcock disdainful or worse toward cops. This isn’t news, of course, and we’re used to seeing it in his more traditional movies, from Strangers on a Train to To Catch a Thief (where the Law is often portrayed as dim or callous, sometimes comically so). But in one of the director’s most atypical films released during Hitchcock’s big-star/Technicolor peak, they are truly a scary lot — the offshoot, perhaps, of that oft-told story of youngster Alfred’s mind-messed reaction after his father arranged with a policeman friend to have his son “locked up” for a few minutes as a cautionary experience to show what happened to bad little boys.
Looking very much like the kind of movie a powerful director is allowed to make when he’s fulfilling the last project on a long-term studio contract, The Wrong Man opened at he very end of December 1956 and basically sank without much trace until revisionist historians took over (Warner was making so much money off of Giant at the same time that it probably couldn’t be bothered). In the same half-decade that also saw Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo and North by Northwest — to say nothing of a popular CBS anthology series that turned him into an accessible TV host — here was a black-and-white story that was downright bleak. And one with lead Henry Fonda playing an all but Bresson-ion protagonist (Bresson by way of Kafka). Let’s just say that it didn’t keep the paying customers laughing as much as they did at Hitchcock’s TV intros — in an era when he was so popular that I noticed during a ’50s hotel stay, the bed’s side table included a copy of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine next to the obligatory Bible.
Yet this is a powerful fact-based movie and definitely one of the director’s stronger achievements — albeit one that people usually go with all the way or reject out of hand because it goes against what Hitchcock conditioned audiences to want and expect. Co-scripted by Maxwell Anderson, no less, it tells of how financially strapped family man Manny Balestrero (Fonda) got picked up for a series of neighborhood armed robberies after trying to borrow some money on his wife’s insurance policy for her dental work ($300, which at the time would have been a lot of money for the bass player Balestrero was). The authorities — and what a chilly lot they are — put him under arrest after clerks at the insurance office mistakenly ID him — and, as we’ll see much later on in one of the single greatest dissolves in movie history, the resemblance likely would have been uncanny to someone preoccupied with trying to stay alive and not concentrating all that closely. This also applies to other victimized witnesses who’ve fallen prey in delis and liquor stores to one of the neighborhood’s more prolific stick-up men.
Most unusually for him, Hitchcock filmed Man in semi-documentary style, and one of the side benefits here is seeing New York City and its borough life as things looked in 1956 — not that any vistas here would ever qualify as Sinatra “start spreadin’ the news” stuff. The closest thing to glitz comes at the beginning when we see Manny playing bass at the Stork Club, complete with a shot or two of Sherman Billingsley — the Club proprietor who’d spent much of the decade hosting a live camp-classic TV show from a CBS Studios replica of the nightspot. It was here, beyond the expected celebrity pandering, that a visiting bank VP from Des Moines might be photographed immersed in cigarette smoke (Fatimas was the show’s sponsor) as their daughters showed off their first formals. Ironically, Billingsley famously fought the musician’s union — and all unions, in fact — in a very public war, but that’s another story.
The interesting twist here — and it kind of makes the movie — is Vera Miles’s portrayal of Rose (Mrs.) Balestrero, who apparently went on such a guilt trip over what she mistakenly perceived to be her responsibility for the arrest that she cracked up and had to be institutionalized. I’m not sure how anyone construed from early-1950s Cinecolor ‘B’s like The Rose Bowl Story and Pride of the Blue Grass that Miles would be so good at playing unhinged types, but she was also memorable doing so in Revenge — the half-hour gem that launched “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” in 1955 and one of the episodes Hitchcock himself directed. If you count TV collaborations, Miles worked three times with Hitchcock and three times with John Ford (four with Ford if you really want to stretch it and count her walk-on in When Willie Comes Marching Home). This is a major reason her relatively brief heyday is still so revered by serious movie lovers, and who knows how her career would have panned out had pregnancy not forced her to drop out of what became the Kim Novak role in Vertigo? In any event, she’s a good match here with her co-star; though about as Italian as Max von Sydow, Fonda is otherwise perfect here in the kind of spot-on performance that never wins awards, while Miles is chilling in the kind of part that gives her a couple big, showy scenes.
In addition to retaining a smooth making-of short that appeared on the long-ago Man standard DVD, Warner has given the picture a new transfer with a surprising (to me) amount of grain that suits the picture’s semi-documentary style — a far cry from the VistaVision/Technicolor look that had won Man cinematographer Robert Burks an Oscar a few months earlier for To Catch a Thief. I knew that Balestrero’s 1953 nightmare had first been communicated to the mass public via a national magazine article — but had no idea that it had previously been dramatized in early ’54 as an episode on NBC’s “Robert Montgomery Presents.” Hopefully, all these rights to his story enabled the real-life Manny to pay off some bills and facilitate his move to Florida, which a final on-screen notation informs us became the family’s new home. Maybe he wanted some sun (there’s certainly none in the movie), or maybe by then Billingsley had finally busted the musician’s union.