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The Wrong Man

If, along with I Confess (1953), 1956's The Wrong Man ranks as one of Alfred Hitchcock's weaker films during the 1950s, then like its predecessor it also must be considered one of the director's most personal, both for its strict concern for the most trenchant of Hitchcockian themes and its stark Catholic imagery. Henry Fonda stars as Christopher 'Manny' Balestrero, a New York musician who has a plum job playing bass on the bandstand at Manhattan's swank Stork Club. His life at home is equally fulfilling, with his wife Rose (Vera Miles) and two spirited young sons, boys who are shaping up to be talented musicians in their own right. However, despite the family's emotional fulfillment, money's normally tight, and Rose's upcoming dental surgery will cost around $300 — more cash than the Balestrereos normally keep on hand. Manny visits an insurance office, hoping to take out a loan on Rose's policy, but he strolls into a disastrous coincidence: The women behind the counter are convinced he's the same man who held up the office a few months earlier. After reporting their suspicions to the police, Manny is swiftly and unceremoniously arrested, and before long he's linked by eyewitnesses to a series of robberies in Manhattan. Despite their assurances to the contrary, it's clear that the cops think they've picked up their man, and before long Manny is arraigned and imprisoned — it's only because of generous relatives that he manages to post $7,500 bail. But while he may not be behind bars, and he's secured a capable attorney (Anthony Quayle), the case of mistaken identity begins to take its toll, as Rose's distress soon transforms into mental illness brought on by a combination of guilt, fear, and mistrust.

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"Total plausibility and authenticity merely add up to documentary," Hitchcock once told his colleague François Truffaut, and his four films prior to The Wrong Man bear out such a theory — the quartet of Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much mark Hitchcock's most warm, colorful, and prolific period, thanks in part to four witty screenplays by John Michael Hayes. But by 1956, Hitchcock's collaboration with Hayes would end, leading to the darker masterpieces of Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie (with only North by Northwest finding Hitchcock's tongue planted firmly in cheek). With such solid batting averages on either side, it's not hard to see how The Wrong Man is so easily overlooked, and while it's not among the most successful of the director's films (he suggested to Truffaut that it be filed "among the indifferent Hitchcocks"), it's his most straightforward mature work. Having a lifelong fear of the police and ingrained Catholic guilt, the true story of Manny Balestrero (which first appeared in a Life magazine article in 1953) captured Hitchcock's attention, particularly with its suggestion of an ordinary family man going about his normal business, only to be picked up by the cops and locked in a cell for a crime he didn't commit. It's the first third of The Wrong Man that's the most powerful, fully conveying The Master's Kafkaesque paranoia in stark detail, with everyman Henry Fonda interrogated by police for hours without legal counsel, only to discover his protests of innocence are falling on increasingly deaf ears (and it's notable how the quietly terrifying arrest scene presents the investigators as trenchcoat-wearing, sedan-driving gangsters taking a man for a ride, rather than upright police officers examining all angles of a case). Fonda is terrific in an understated performance, but once the script shifts gears, focusing on Vera Miles' emotional breakdown, Hitch breaks one of his own rules of cinema by splitting the narrative thread. The brief courtroom scenes towards the end of the film, and the cathartic conclusion, restore audience interest to a degree. But even if The Wrong Man is to be regarded as an important bridge from the Hitchcock champagne of John Michael Hayes to the darker worlds of the Bates Motel and Bodega Bay, it's best appreciated by Hitchcock completists. Warner's DVD release of The Wrong Man features a good widescreen transfer (1.66:1 OAR) from a reasonably good black-and-white source-print that exhibits only modest amount of collateral wear, while the monaural audio (DD 1.0) is clean and crisp. Supplements include the featurette "Guilt Trip: Hitchcock and The Wrong Man" with comments from film critic Richard Schickel and art director Paul Sylbert (20 min.) and the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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