THE WRONG MAN (1956, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

Alfred Hitchcock is one of cinema’s best-known and most critically-respected directors. Films such as Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960) are widely regarded as being among the best films ever made and many other of the dozens of films made by Hitchcock in his long career are also important, including several—such as Shadow of a Doubt (1943)—that come close to being genuine noir films. But many of his films contain strong noir elements, including The Wrong Man (1956), a film that stands out in Hitchcock’s career because it was based on a true story (a fact greatly emphasized in the marketing of the film). Nevertheless, this story is in many ways a classic noir narrative, including a “happy” ending that feels as false and tacked-on as the happy endings that sometimes conclude other noir films—possibly because this ending does, in fact, depart from the film’s source in reality more than does any other element of the film.

The Wrong Man, as the title suggests, is about a case of mistaken identity that causes an innocent man to be falsely accused—in this case, of a series of armed robberies. The film is shot in black and white in a quasi-documentary style that, at least on the surface, lacks the elegance of Hitchcock’s more elaborate films. In this sense, its visual style matches the gritty subject matter, leading David Sterritt to suggest that it is the closest of all of Hitchcock’s films to being straight film noir (77). And this style is announced early on, as Hitchcock himself appears in silhouette at the beginning of the film to introduce the story and explain its background in fact. This moment (which substitutes for Hitchcock’s usual cameo appearances in his films of the time) is one of the most classic noir visuals of the entire film, suggesting a certain darkness that runs throughout the narrative, until the sudden shift at the end. This darkness, however, extends beyond the actual plot to include a grim commentary on 1950s America as a whole. Sterritt thus suggests that “of all the films Hitchcock made during the 1950s, The Wrong Man captures most vividly and chillingly the American spirit of its time” (65). In many ways, in fact, this film is even darker than it first appears; read as a commentary on American society in the mid-1950s, the film becomes a story, not of a man thrust into extraordinary circumstances by a series of unusual misfortunes and coincidences, but of a man whose experience is, in fact, typical (at least in an allegorical sense) in 1950s America.

One of the film’s most noir visuals shows Hitchcock, in silhouette, introducing the film.

For most of its 105 minutes, The Wrong Man is unremittingly bleak, depicting its protagonist, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), in the clutches of powerful and mysterious institutional forces beyond his control or understanding. Despite working as a jazz musician (one of the decade’s central countercultural occupations), Balestrero is a solid citizen who works hard, loves his family, and does exactly what the gray-flanneled orthodoxy of the period demands of him. From this point of view, it is significant that he (like the real Balestrero) is the bassist for the house band at the Stork Club, an extremely respectable and upscale nightclub frequented by celebrities and the wealthy elite. Balestrero is thus hardly a countercultural figure of the kind often found in the dingy nightclubs and stage shows of film noir (one thinks of the deranged drumming of the character played by Elisha Cook, Jr., in an underground “jive” club in Phantom Lady). Indeed, his orthodoxy might help to explain the almost weirdly passive way that he submits to the forces of authority when he is falsely accused of a series of holdups, then arrested and processed through a grimly carceral criminal justice system, seeming to be heading, through most of the film, for certain conviction and long-term imprisonment.

In “The Wrong Man,” Venetian blinds are replaced by prison bars as a key source of carceral shadow patterns.

The criminal justice system, in The Wrong Man, functions as a sinister and alien force, not as the benevolent force for good that was its official public face at the time. Hitchcock, however, avoids controversy by making his critique of the police and the justice system quite subtle. On the surface, the police are responsible professionals; it is only on closer examination that we begin to see how sinister they really are as they attempt to manipulate evidence to incriminate Manny. Some of this depiction might come from Hitchcock’s own personal inclinations—many commentators have noted that Hitchcock’s father took the boy to a local police station when he was only five years old and asked them to lock him up briefly as a disciplinary warning. From this experience, Hitchcock derived a lifelong fear of police and jails, and this fear comes through very clearly in The Wrong Man. But the depiction of the criminal justice system in the film surely has a broader significance as well, suggesting that this system was an impersonal and mysterious force that might swallow up any one at any time, especially if one resides outside the white, Anglo-Saxon mainstream of orthodoxy.

More importantly, the criminal justice system serves in the film as a sort of microcosm of 1950s America as a whole, anticipating such later social criticism as the characterization of modern bourgeois society by the French theorist Michel Foucault as a carceral system designed to control the behavior of the general population in ways that are not fundamentally different from the strategies employed in prisons. Indeed, the justice system is only the most overt of a number of carceral images in The Wrong Man. Together, these images depict American society as grimly dystopian. At the same time, the film systematically considers, then rejects a whole range of potential utopian alternatives. One of these is Balestrero’s job as a club musician, a job that seems to promise access to certain utopian compensations but that serves merely as another source of confinement. Balestrero plays his bass not for the joy of the music but to make money to pay his interminable bills. In fact, when shown playing in the film, he seems almost numb, going through the motions of just another routine, dead-end job that he must do to try to meet his domestic obligations to his family.

The Balestrero family is another potentially utopian enclave that, in fact, turns out to be the most subtly (and chillingly) carceral of the various institutions depicted in the film. A seemingly perfect middle-class group, the Balestreros consist of Manny, his loving wife, Rose (Vera Miles), and their two clean-cut and well-behaved children, aged five and eight. The family seemingly lives a relatively comfortable lower-middle-class existence, but we soon learn that this existence is precarious at best, paid for on the installment plan, forcing Manny to run as fast as he can on the treadmill of his life just to try to stay where he is. For example, when Rose needs $300 worth of dental work, this seemingly minor difficulty triggers a major crisis in the family finances. Manny shows a momentary grimace of pain when he first gets the news but regains his composure and accepts the situation with his usual passivity. He’ll simply find a way to borrow the money. Rose, always less willing to accept their situation in life without resistance (perhaps because her life as a housewife involves considerably more drudgery than his life as a musician), bitterly complains that “every time we get up, something comes along and knocks us back down again.”

As if this depiction of daily American life were not harsh enough, Manny then goes to an insurance office to try to borrow money on his wife’s policy, only to be misrecognized by the clerks there as the man who earlier robbed them. This misidentification triggers the series of events that leads to Manny’s incarceration. The scenes of his arrest, interrogation, and confinement are among the most painful and chilling in American cinema, made all the more so by Manny’s seemingly passive acceptance of it all, as if he had been so thoroughly conditioned by the ethos of conformism that he is unable to mount any sort of protest against official authority. This kind of conditioning is referred to by the French Marxist theorist Louis Althusser as “interpellation,” a technical word that literally means being called before a judge. Althusser clearly intends the term to suggest acquiescence to the legal system as a metaphor for general obedience to the expectations of official ideology, and The Wrong Man seems to dramatize precisely what he means. Indeed, one feels that Manny accepts his role as husband and father in the same passive way that he submits to the judges and police, going through the motions simply because he thinks that is what is expected of him. In some ways, the true power of the film comes from the fact that, once Manny finally gets out on bail, he finds that life outside jail remains stifling and oppressive. After all, the family’s money troubles are now worse than ever, and the relationship between Rose and Manny, however strong to begin with, begins to unravel under the strain. Rose, on the edge from the very beginning, is soon pushed into a mental breakdown and institutionalized, the point where she snaps symbolized by a scene in which she strikes Manny with a hairbrush, then breaks a mirror with it, allowing the film to capture, suggestively (if a bit heavy-handedly), Manny’s fractured reflection in the mirror. Even after Manny is (seemingly miraculously) cleared of the robbery charges, Rose remains distracted and numb; she even suggests when Manny gives her the good news that it doesn’t make much difference whether she is in a sanitarium or Manny is in jail: their life is carceral and confined, within these institutions or without.

Henry Fonda’s reflection in a broken mirror captures the broken nature of Manny Balestrero’s existence.

James Naremore notes that The Wrong Man is “one of the bleakest movies ever produced in Hollywood,” made even more bleak by the fact that it is “less about crime and punishment than about the breakdown of a fragile, lower middle-class marriage under the pressure of debt and patriarchy, and the slow descent of one of its members into an unglamorous, psychological darkness” (268). This darkness is particularly powerful—and anti-utopian—for the very reason that the family functioned so consistently in the discourse of the 1950s as a utopian oasis in which individuals could be sheltered from the vicissitudes of public life within their own private, protected worlds. This image is powerfully figured in the film in the scene in which Manny is first led away from his doorstep for questioning by the police. As they take him away, he looks longingly through the front window of his modest home and sees Rose inside, an embodiment of a domestic haven from the outside world. Yet he sees Rose through Venetian blinds, the slats of which form a pattern that is suspiciously similar to the pattern of prison bars that Manny will soon encounter. In The Wrong Man, the family is not just inadequate as a private haven from public trouble; it is really the main source of the troubles of both Rose and Manny, leaving no source of relief from the gloom of the film.

View from a police car (with a police detective’s head in the foreground) as Manny looks back through the window of his home, wife Rose silhouetted inside.

The Wrong Man, in fact, contains a number of such subtle visual touches. The film begins with scenes of the Stork Club (filmed at the actual club), as the opening credits play over shots of formally clad patrons in the wee hours of the morning, with the music of Manny and the rest of the band playing in the background. The play a plain vanilla number, seemingly lively, but devoid of real energy; the band members themselves seem tired and bored by the end of the song, perhaps because they are nearing the end of their shift. And it is a shift—this is work, not art. As Manny departs the club afterward, two uniformed police officers pass by on the sidewalk outside. In an artful shot, Manny can briefly be seen bracketed by the two police officers, foreshadowing the way in which he will later be surrounded by police (and the whole legal system) after his arrest.Manny then descends into the subway station, almost as if descending into hell. In the train on the way home, he reads the newspaper, lingering over an ad for Ford automobiles. It’s a classic 1950s-style ad: headlined “Family Fun,” it shows a couple with their two boys, the same configuration as the Balestrero family. The implication of the ad is clear: this ideal young American family is living the American dream, punctuated by the requisite suburban home and Ford automobile. “Travel first class at Ford prices,” recommends the ad, suggesting that, through the proper consumption of the appropriate commodities, any American family can live as if they are rich. The family seems to be loading the car for a trip, the Ford giving them the mobility they need to explore the open road and go wherever they want to go, experiencing the freedom that is supposedly there for the taking for all Americans. Manny then turns the page and sees an ad for a bank, again featuring an ad for a family with two children, touting the dividends such families can gain by depositing their money in the bank. In response to this one, though, Manny looks thoughtfully grim, showing what we will eventually be able to identify as a sign of money troubles in his family, which turns out to be excluded from many benefits of the American dream due to lack of finances. The freedom touted in the Ford ad is not so easily available, after all.

Manny leaves the Stork Club after finishing work, bracketed by uniformed police officers.

On the way home, Manny stops off for an early breakfast in a diner, knowing everyone at home will probably be asleep when he arrives. He’s obviously a regular, and the counterman addresses him by name. As he sits with his coffee, awaiting his toast, he begins to mark up a racing schedule printed in the newspaper. He later tells Rose when she finds the form that it’s a game he plays with himself, making imaginary bets and then seeing how much he would have won or lost had the bets been real. He does it, he tells his wife, because he likes mathematics, but there is clearly more to it than that. If he is telling the truth, it’s a fantasy game, built both on visions of winning big and escaping his habitual money troubles and on a dream of being able to risk money on real bets instead of being tied down with so many domestic responsibilities. In short, like so many noir protagonists, Manny dreams of escape from the dreary routine of day-to-day life amid the financial pressures of modern capitalism. On the other hand, it is equally likely that he is not telling the truth and that occasionally does bet on the horses, and activity that still has a fantasy dimension; that he would feel that he must hide this activity from his wife says something about how confined he feels within the marriage as well, while suggesting that, even in the beginning, the marriage is not as perfect as it might first appear.

When Manny finally does get home, the first thing he does is look in on his two boys, who are sleeping peacefully in their bed together. It’s a moment that seems idyllic, the fact that they have to share a bed not seeming to indicate any particular hardship. At the same time, the location of their room, just off the entryway inside the front door (as well as the fact that it has a double door with glass windows), suggests that this room might not be a bedroom at all. Perhaps it was intended as a dining room or parlor of some sort, but had to be converted into a bedroom for the boys due to lack of space. In any case, Manny puts away the fresh milk he had picked up on the doorsteps, then heads to his own bedroom, expecting to find Rose asleep. She is, however, awake, unable to sleep due to the pain from four impacted wisdom teeth. Still, she looks radiant, and they look like two people very much in love. But there is that twitch of pain in Manny’s face when he hears about the cost of extracting her wisdom teeth. Manny has thus returned from work not to a personal sanctuary from the troubles of the outside world but to a focal point where all of those troubles converge.

In short, in small, subtle ways, Hitchcock works to make it clear that the situation in the Balestrero household is nothing like that in the idealized pictures of the family such as the one Manny saw in that Ford ad. The overall implication of the film, though, is not that the Balestreros are somehow especially dysfunctional (at least not in the beginning), but that the idealized visions of American families portrayed in such ads (and in films and, increasingly, television) of the 1950s simply did not match the reality of the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans. In this film, one can’t solve all of life’s problems by simply leaving it to Beaver, and it is definitely not necessarily the case that Father knows best.

This evocation of idealizations of the American family in 1950s media and advertising provides an important lens through which to view what many have seen as the most problematic aspect of the film: its manufactured happy ending which seems to negate the tragedy that has come before (as well as trivializing the very real suffering of Rose Balestrero). The beginning of the final shot is overlaid with on-screen text announcing that, within two years after the end of the previous action in the film, Rose completely recovered and returned to her family, after which they moved to Florida to start a new life. In point of fact, as Lumenick points out, Rose did leave the institution and return to her family, but she never fully regained her mental health, a fact the knowledge of which immediately makes the film’s ending suspect. As the scene continues, the four Balestreros are seen walking arm-in-arm beneath rustling palm trees in Florida—as if they have walked straight out of a magazine or newspaper ad. Read against that earlier Ford ad, though, this final moment seems inauthentic, almost a parody, even though Hitchcock apparently did not intend it that way.[1]

In a sense, The Wrong Man actually has two happy endings, both of which are problematic. Prior to this Florida ending, we also see the end of Manny’s legal troubles when the “right” man is apprehended, seemingly by divine intervention (it occurs just as Manny is praying for help to a painting of Jesus), eventually clearing Manny of the robbery charges. This ending seems impossibly heavy-handed, even hokey, though it appears a bit less so when we realize that it has been set up by at least one earlier scene. When Manny is locked up and is forced to hand over his personal effects, he is allowed to keep the rosary that he carries in his pocket. This scene both serves as a reminder that Manny is an observing Catholic (as was Hitchcock), while at the same time setting up religion as a possible resource that somehow escapes the control of the legal system.[2] And, of course, it is also the case that Manny (full name Christopher Emanuel Balestrero[3]) has been figured as a sort of Christ image throughout the film, his sufferings in some ways paralleling those of Christ (except that, unlike Christ, he is ultimately freed while a thief is punished).[4] This divine intervention radically denies the Marxist notion that men make their own history, suggesting that good things come to those who suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, not to those who take arms against a sea of troubles. At the same time, it also subtly suggests that it takes a miracle to escape the long carceral arm of the law once it gets you in its grip.

In superimposed images, Manny Balestrero silently prays to a painting of Jesus, while Manny’s “double” is shown walking down a sidewalk shortly before his apprehension.

Brill sees this miraculous intervention as a basic instance of the “underlying dominance of a romantic, religious optimism” in Hitchcock’s films (124), though the man who is apprehended in Manny’s place might see it differently. Indeed, in order to produce this optimistic reading, Brill is forced to see Manny’s original arrest as a case of pure bad luck, while his eventual exoneration is due to divine intervention. Slavoj Žižek, on the other hand, suggests that, if the film wants to suggest the intervention of the divine in human affairs, then consistency requires that Manny’s overall troubles must be attributed to the machinations of a “cruel, arbitrary and impenetrable God who can bring down catastrophe at any moment” (130).

Meanwhile, if this reading gives Manny’s exoneration a dark side, any close look at the film makes it clear that the evidence against the “right” man as the perpetrator of the crimes with which Manny had been charged is to an extent exactly the same as the evidence that had been presented against Manny himself, which means that this second suspect might also be misidentified. Granted, the second man is arrested in the midst of a robbery, but he vehemently insists that this is the first robbery in which he has ever participated. In any case, this new suspect also identifies himself as a family man, which means that his arrest leads to the destruction of still another American family.

Thus, the darkness of the film is not really relieved by the nominally happy endings, the meaning of which remains unclear. The film, in fact, is unstable throughout, with the misrecognition of Manny by the various witnesses serving as a sort of analog to potential mis-readings of the film by careless viewers. As Paula Marantz Cohen notes, The Wrong Man is filled with examples of misinterpretation that, along with the absorption and effacement of Manny’s identity by larger forces, seem to move the film “in the direction of a postmodern American esthetic,” in which no definitive interpretations can ever be achieved (155).

This is the case with the second happy ending, as well. For one thing, this ending seems so blatantly artificial as to call attention to its own unbelievability. The ending is, among other things, typical of the faux utopianism of the 1950s, though it is so extreme as to function as a potential parody of such utopianism. Indeed, Sterritt notes that this artificial “reality-denying” ending is one of the “most 1950s-ish components” of the film (76). Though he notes that Hitchcock may simply have been trying to pacify his audiences in the 1950s by tossing them a bone to mitigate the grimness of the film, Sterritt suggests that this device is more likely intended as a “profoundly ironic” commentary on the “shallow” optimism of the mid-1950s (77).

Whatever Hitchcock’s intentions, The Wrong Man presents viewers wih numerous opportunities to interpret it in a variety of different ways. These interpretive uncertainties remain in place even at the end of the film, despite the fact that all seems to have been resolved in the final scene. The frightening and sinister justice system to which Manny had earlier fallen victim is still in place, after all, and the Cold War Security State of the 1950s is still ever-alert, always on the lookout for signs of unorthodox behavior or intentions. Hitchcock reportedly felt that the message most viewers would take away from this film was “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” That suggestion might be taken as part of the film’s religious content, but it might more appropriately be taken as a reminder of just how ubiquitous (and frightening) the official power depicted in the film could really be, making it possible for anyone to fall afoul of it at any time. There is a reason why David Caute’s historical study of the postwar years in America is called The Great Fear.

WORKS CITED

Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. Monthly Review Press, 1971.

Brill, Lesley. The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock’s Films. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Caute, David. The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge under Truman and Eisenhower. Simon and Schuster, 1978.

DeRosa, Steven. “Revisiting Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man.” Writing with Hitchcock (November 10, 2010). http://blog.writingwithhitchcock.com/2010/11/revisiting-alfred-hitchcocks-wrong-man.html. Accessed July 7, 2019.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Vintage-Random House, 1979.

Lumenick, Lou. “A Case of Mistaken Identity Ruined This Man’s Life—and Inspired Hitchcock.” New York Post (February 7, 2016). Accessed July 7, 2019.

Marantz Cohen, Paula. “Hitchcock’s Revised American Vision: The Wrong Man and Vertigo.” Hitchcock’s America. Ed. Jonathan Freedman and Richard Millington. Oxford University Press, 1999. 155–72.

Naremore, James. “Hitchcock at the Margins of Noir.” Alfred Hitchcock: Centenary Essays. Ed. Richard Allen and S. Ishii Gonzalès. British Film Institute, 1999. 263–77.

Sterritt, David. The Films of Alfred Hitchcock. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Žižek, Slavoj. “The Hitchcockian Blot.” Alfred Hitchcock: Centenary Essays. Ed. Richard Allen and S. Ishii Gonzalès. British Film Institute, 1999. 123–39.

NOTES


[1] For some of the details on the construction of this final scene, see DeRosa.

[2] Just before the moment when he is told he can keep the crucifix, Manny is asked whether he uses narcotics. He looks surprised and hesitates in his answer, though we have no reason to doubt his denial. At the same time, that this question is immediately followed by a reminder of his religious inclinations cannot help but recall the old Marxist dictum that “religion is the opiate of the masses.”

[3] The name “Christopher” obviously suggests “Christ,” while “Emanuel” is one of the symbolic names used for Christ in the Bible.

[4] One could even see those palm trees under which the family walks in the final scene as a redemptive Christian image, suggestive of Palm Sunday, the day on which Christians (especially Catholics) celebrate Christ’s triumphal return to Jerusalem, the palm tree serving as a symbol of triumph over sin and death in Christianity (a meaning inherited from earlier Roman sources).