Y2 Day 30: Falsely Accused – The Wrong Man
Monday 30 September 2018 11.50pm
The Wrong Man (1956)
An Alfred Hitchcock Film
I’ve been taken completely by surprise with Hitchcock’s film The Wrong Man (1957). This would be the third time I’ve seen it and both of the other times I thought it was a very tense, suspenseful, drama, with one particularly interesting Hitchcockian shot. This time, however, I was impressed by the side story, which is about how the wife of the accused robber, Balestrero (Henry Fonda), copes with the process of trying to find evidence that will prove her husband’s innocence. It reveals, yet again – as with Marnie – the director’s tasteful and restrained view of representing mental illness onscreen.
The previous two occasions I watched The Wrong Man I didn’t know as much about mental illness as I learned in the 1990s and it has been that long since I saw it. Having witnessed mental illness and someone’s complete breakdown, firsthand, I now see the representation of Rose Balestrero as remarkable for its period, as was Marnie (1964), for its time and place.
Story (with ***spoilers***)
Manny plays bass fiddle at the Stork Club. One day during a routine visit to his insurance agency to discuss his wife’s policy he is identified by three women in the office as the man who robbed them some months ago. It leads to his arrest, his indictment on that, and several other charges, and a trial. Without the money for private investigators, Manny and his wife, Rose, try to remember what they were doing on any of the dates in question. They briefly find hope that they actually seem to have witnesses to one of the days in question. Of the three people who could vouch for them, two have died in the interim and the other, a boxer, can’t be located. The stress of finding each trail ending in disappointment becomes a great strain on Rose. She loses hope in find a way to clear Manny of the charges and starts to blame the way things have been, leading up to and including his arrest, on herself. Her inability to accept their circumstances and the likely conviction of Manny drive her mind to a place where she can disconnect from experiencing her emotions and she is placed in a mental health hospital to try and relieve her mind of its stress. Her husband is discovered to be the wrong man but Rose’s mind has slipped away to a place where things are calm and dissimilar to real life. His innocence no longer matters because her mind has moved into its own kind of mode of self-preservation.
Although the main attraction of the story is the fact that a man has been arrested for robbery based on eyewitness identification and that a strange twist of fate rescued him from a guilty verdict when the real robber was apprehended, Hitchcock and his writers developed another thread that was inextricably bound with the wrong man concept: what does the misidentification of Manny inflict upon the wife of the wrong man in terms of stress: mental and emotional pressures?
With Henry Fonda able to fit the film into his schedule, and with an inexperienced actress named Vera Miles, Hitchcock was able to use Fonda’s determined, stoic, emotionless, screen-persona, while developing Miles’s depiction of a woman disintegrating under the strain of seeing her husband falsely accused, causing her to lose all hope. A lot more has been written about Hitchcock’s approach to The Wrong Man, and about what Hitchcock hoped to develop in Vera Miles, as his new protégé, but not much has been written about the convincing performance she gives or how Hitchcock elicited it. It may look like Miles has just reduced her performance from the previous articulations of love and then worry, to adopting a no-expression expression, but that is an uncritical appraisal of her performance once she laughs hysterically when they discover two of their three witness are dead. When Manny enters their bedroom and finds Rose still sitting up as dawn approaches he mentions that this is the second night he’s found her this way, in a sleeveless nightgown, while he’s all-rugged up. She has stopped eating and sleeping. She pours out an unrelenting series of accusations against Manny and finishes it by striking him with her hairbrush on his forehead (with a similar motion that Anthony Perkins used in Psycho but with a knife). She doesn’t apologise. She walks back to her chair and realises, in a fog, a dreamlike state, that she isn’t well and does need attention.