I LEARNED IT AT THE MOVIES: The Wrong Man (1956)

The Wrong Man (1956)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Henry Fonda as Christopher Emanuel (Manny) Balestrero
Vera Miles as Rose Balestrero
Anthony Quayle as attorney Frank O’Connor


Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man is based on a true story. We hear this from the director himself, standing in a pool of light on an otherwise dark sound stage, a preview of the stark black and white in which the film was shot.

In the opening scenes we follow Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), a bass player at New York’s Stork Club, as his workday ends and he takes the subway home to Queens. He picks up the milk bottles on the front stoop, lets himself into his modest home and looks in on his sleeping sons. He then learns that his wife, Rose, (Vera Miles) has been told she needs some expensive dental work ($300 in 1956).

When Rose frets about their finances, Manny comforts her, revealing an innate, and perhaps innocent, optimism. Things will work out, he tells her. They’re lucky people, they have each other. Regarding their immediate problem, he suggests borrowing against Rose’s life insurance policy since they’ve already borrowed against his. He promises to stop at the insurance agency the next day and take care of arranging the loan.

The film’s early quiet scenes draw us to Manny, a loving husband and father who settles an argument between his young sons, a son who takes the time to visit his aging parents, a genuinely good man. And so we’re pulling for him when he goes to the insurance agency to ask for the loan and we overhear a conversation that he’s not privy to: Two women in the office have spotted him as the man who held up the agency weeks earlier and who is suspected of committing a series of  robberies and assaults in the neighborhood.

Now we’re in the uncomfortable position of anticipating the nightmare that awaits Manny later that day when the police pick him up outside his house to take him in for questioning and refuse to let him tell his wife who’s expecting him home. Whether or not this is normal police procedure, Hitchcock uses it to make a painful point. Like Manny (and we see the realization dawning in his eyes) we begin to understand that he’s no longer in control of his life. That fact is driven home as he’s paraded before storekeepers, interrogated by the police, placed in a line-up, fingerprinted—the police officer taking control of his hand and pressing his finger to the paper—and locked up.

If we didn’t understand the significance of Hitchcock’s introductory speech earlier, we do now. This terrifying loss of autonomy could happen to any of us, the innocent as well as the guilty.

Rather than risk a spoiler for those who want to see the film (DVDs are available online), I’ll end with this quote from Jean-Luc Godard’s essay: “The only suspense in The Wrong Man is that of chance itself. The subject of this film lies less in the unexpectedness of events than in their probability.”

Godard’s essay is available here in English (you’ll have to scroll down a bit to find it): http://torontofilmreview.blogspot.com/search?q=The+Wrong+Man


  1. Thanks for calling this one to my attention, I believe it’s the only Hitchcock film I’ve missed. In this era, the chance of losing control of one’s life in this way seems ever higher, so the film should be riveting to watch. I’ll check it out.

  2. Gretchen Gibbs

    How good that Hitchcock realized the scariness of the everyday. Feeling fright is not limited to experiencing extreme heights or a chase scene in Berlin.

  3. Talk about a timeless story! You could easily envision such a docudrama coming out now. In fact, it’s pretty amazing (n the good sense) that this movie was made in the 50’s. It sounds like a heartbreaker, and one which I’m going to make it my business to see. Thanks for the non-spoiling teaser, Anita.

  4. Thanks all for your comments. Lois, riveting is the perfect word, due in large part to Henry Fonda’s understated performance.

    Gretchen, I agree. It’s interesting to compare this film for what passes for high suspense films today.

    Carole, I hadn’t thought of the film in the context of the fifties–interesting point.

  5. Chance and powerlessness haunt us all. Clever of Hitchcock to use that rather than the excitement of murder or mayhem to grip us. If I can bear the suspense, I’ll see it. Thanks, Anita for the gripping review.

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