Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Wrong Man / ***1/2 (1956)

During a recent viewing of the astounding “12 Angry Men,” my mind was persistently drawn to another picture from the same era – Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man,” also starring Henry Fonda, about a middle-class individual who is accused of a series of burglaries he did not commit. Filmed and released within a year of one another, both movies were parables of a legal system that created vacuums for error, and while the innocence of the plaintiff in Sidney Lumet’s film was up to speculation, the certainty in Hitchcock’s was not; here was in a man who simply was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and bore a striking resemblance to a crook responsible for hundreds of lost dollars at the end of a loaded gun. Their common themes, one might say, reflected an attitude of the times that both filmmakers found strikingly relevant; no greater threat could undermine the security of people than a flawed justice system, especially one that had not yet adopted the values of surveillance or forensic advancement. Yet to consider both movies now in this time of artifice is to marvel at the unwavering power of truth, a tool often weakened in the face of investigative limitations. Was it also diminished by prejudice? Misconceptions? Or was one’s faith in the system simply misplaced? When the director briefly appears in the prologue to announce to the camera that his “true” story is perhaps stranger than most of his own fiction, one is inclined to sense there is equal parts resignation and befuddlement in his voice.

Lumet made a career of connecting his audience to that device, while Hitchcock, rarely interested in straightforward reality, frequently dodged the issue; his was a panache where the creativity overflowed through relentless manipulation of characters, emotions and audience perceptions, even though they might take place in worlds parallel to our own. But by the time he made “The Wrong Man,” he had nearly succumbed to the shadows of this premise – reportedly the greatest of his own personal fears – and the movie camera was his equalizer in confronting those concerns. There is a sense while watching it, furthermore, that his devious sensibilities are tucked firmly away in a space foreign to the frames because they need to be. This is not an ambitious or twisted thriller with rushes of fanfare, nor is it an anxious race against constraints and misconceptions; the movie is a sullen drama from the first scene until the last, anchored by rather sincere performances and conveyed in the sorts of shadows and silence that were the staples of mainstream film noir.

Henry Fonda, one of the most sublime of Hollywood stars, was perhaps the greatest choice to play such a mild-mannered protagonist; without pitching the character through overzealous chutzpah, he could be effective at modulating the material into a face of tempered authenticity. He portrays a musician in a jazz band at a swanky nightclub named Manny, whose quiet and solitary existence cloak the fact that luck always seems out of reach; attempting to stay afloat from yo-yo debts, he maintains a calm face for the sake of two young sons and a wife (played by Vera Miles) as a means to neutralize possible gloom. In the early scenes, they solemnly discuss the constraints of their finances in relation to present life demands: she needs to have wisdom teeth extracted, and he mulls over how he is going to come up with $300 to pay for the surgery. There is a thought that maybe the bank will allow a loan on their insurance policy. The two exchange affectionate platitudes in between planning (“I hate putting you in this position!”), and there is even a brief exchange done in the classic Hitchcock style, where both discuss evolution’s place in how a human jaw prevents extra teeth from forming properly.

It is there where many of the dependable cues from the master of suspense are distilled under the weight of a morose production filled with low-lit shots and sparse musical chords. The purpose: Hitchcock wants his audience to remove themselves from the contemplation of excitement or awe, because what happens to Manny is not in synch with the almost jovial sensibilities of their creator. When he arrives at the bank to request a loan dressed in a tall coat and hat, the desk clerk mistakes him for a thief that had robbed the facility just a few weeks prior. Silently, she converses with two others behind a cubicle while he stands at the counter; they share in the horror, perhaps out of knee-jerk hysteria after having a deadly weapon once pointed at them. Later that night, Manny is picked up by police for resembling a wanted suspect in business burglaries, which leads to a couple of tense sequences in which he is forced to walk through robbed businesses for identification, and then another where his handwriting is compared to that of the actual culprit. There are remarkable similarities in both, but added facets of thought swirl in our minds as he is chosen, without reservation, in a police lineup. Do the girls from the bank really know it’s him, or are they only leaping to that conclusion because of the pain they endured in that one threatening moment when observations might have been blurred?

A case mounts that seems destined for conviction. Loopholes close rapidly. The eyewitness testimony creates limited arguments for a defense. Convinced of his innocence regardless, Rose (the Miles character) urges visits to an attorney, who suggests that Manny pursue alibis for the nights of two of the key burglaries. When a hunt turns up bewildering results (two of the witnesses have died), it leads to his wife’s emotional collapse; she withdraws and even lashes out, culminating in a scene where the director implores a dependable visual device – the broken mirror – as a metaphor for cracked psyches. Perhaps in showing us such drastic changes to a couple’s everyday routine, Hitchcock is deliberately living out the worst case scenario as a means to subjugate the fear from within. Was it as important to the audience as it was to him? Maybe not initially, but because the delivery of “The Wrong Man” echoes the persuasion of his lurid fantasies, that meant that his viewers would not be able to resist the temptation of projecting themselves into the situation. The primary difference, of course, is what remained afterwards; films like “Psycho” or “Frenzy” certainly reverberated with visceral aftershocks, but anyone leaving this film was doing so meditating over psychological impulses rather than sensations.

If that removed the director from his element, it certainly placed him in the comforts of a production with distinct – if foreign – technical values. Normally so methodical with the staging of shots and edits, there is little in the way of technical prowess rising to notice here; many of the key images are static placements of light and shadow, and human faces are focused on as a means of telling this story (both literally and figuratively). The cinematography by Robert Burks (a frequent collaborator of Alfred’s) shows a remarkable sense of restraint; there is clarity and precision in the frames, but no grandiose sense of perspective – there is no need for it. The performances, ordinarily complicated by the twists of plot mechanics, are pitched at the heart of the situation; Vera Miles seems to unravel before our eyes without obvious visual cues, and Fonda maintains a pattern of uncertainty throughout the disquieting ordeal of his character, like a victim of a crime stuck in the hypnosis of brutal shock. By playing with the rules of conventional outcomes, Hitchcock of course must lead his story down a path of eased resistance, but not before it has left defining imprints in all of their behaviors. There is a moment in the final ten minutes where the movie replays the police lineup scene from the perspective of Fonda after he is acquitted; when the two bank tellers come down the hallway and must face the man they wrongfully accused, their silence plays like the most deafening of quiet dramatic impulses.

Not many films in the Hitchcock catalogue are content to ride the calmer waves. That was especially true of his key output during the 1950s, when the studio had manufactured sensational expectations of what terrain their treasured filmmaker could conquer. A mere mention of some of many of these titles only adds to that perception: “Strangers on a Train” (a thriller with similar underlying conflicts), “Rear Window,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest.” Given the consistency – and the strength – of that lineup, how in the world did anyone in his circle look at “The Wrong Man” and not scoff at the very idea of a minimalist drama about a character who accepted his fate without at least trying to outrun it? All directors, even those most apt to dance in the spotlight of audacity, have a moment where they must embark on a journey of self-assurance; for some, that means facing the most agonizing personal trepidations in the comforts of their art. This is not a movie many will recall when the sweep of time erodes the marginal achievements in such a prolific directorial catalogue, but it possesses a quality that is firm, affirming and undeniable.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama/Thriller (US); 1956; Not Rated; Running Time: 105 Minutes

Henry Fonda: Manny Balestrero
Vera Miles: Rose Balestrero
Anthony Quayle: Frank D. O’Connor
Harold J. Stone: Det. Lt. Bowers
Esther Minciotti: Mama Balestrero

Produced by
Herbert ColemanDirected by Alfred Hitchcock; Written by Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail

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