Okay, Alfred Hitchcock is The Master of Suspense. Few would question the impact his work had on Hollywood during the twentieth century. So, when examining the work of composer Bernard Herrmann, it seems like second nature to pick a Hitchcock film. These two men are like bacon and eggs… they just fit together. So, as I contemplated this blogaton, I settled on one of my last remaining Hitchcock first-time-watches. One of these years, I will finish his filmography. So sit down, relax, and let’s talk about The Wrong Man.
The Wrong Man follows Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) a musician living a tough, but fruitful life with his (young) wife (Vera Miles) and their two children. Life is hard, but they’re happy. However, everything Manny knows is thrown into chaos when he’s arrested for a series of robberies he has no memory of committing. Anthony Quayle, Harold J. Stone and Charles Cooper co-star in the triller. Alfred Hitchcock directs the film from a script by Angus MacPhail.
As I mentioned, Alfred Hitchcock is one of my most viewed filmmakers and this is a film I had yet to watch— hence you have why I wanted to write on this movie. Ultimately, an understanding of The Master of Suspense’s work brings a certain knowledge of what you’re going to get. None of Hitchcock’s movies are “formulaic” per se, but the man is one of the greatest auteurs to have their work grace the silver screen. You can usually guess what you’re going to get.
The Wrong Man hit theaters in 1956 during an interesting period for the director. He’d hit Hollywood fast and hard in the 1940s with classics like Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt and Spellbound. Later, Hitchcock of course enjoyed a prolific run to close out the 1950s with North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief and finally Psycho to start the new decade.
However, between these two very distinct periods, Hitchcock had a smaller, quieter stretch in the early 1950s which is best defined by Strangers on a Train. The Wrong Man and I Confess followed soon after in rapid succession.
These films interestingly, feel particularly at home during the early fifties. Of course, this period in Hollywood is remembered as a particularly tumultuous one. While the industry had been riding high during World War II and the immediate years to follow, with the early 1950s came the explosion of television which grew rapidly in popularity with mainstream audiences in the United States during this time. Suddenly, the big screen wasn’t the only place to get entertainment. You didn’t even have to leave your living room anymore.
In response to this change, feature films did two things. In many cases they got bigger. They were bright, brash and Technicolor! Or VistaVision… or 3D… or Smell-o-Vision… you’re picking up what I’m putting down. At the same time though, the development of television brought a wave of smaller, more personal, character based pictures and this is exactly where The Wrong Man sits. These movies are a lot closer to the anthology dramas of the 1950s than the Hollywood epics coming out of the Big 5 at the same time.
Of course, the reason we’re all here is to talk about Bernard Herrmann, the composer who very much was Hitchcock’s “Maestro” of choice. Admittedly, I’m not an expert on music… especially of the instrumental variety; however, it doesn’t take long (we’re talking the introductory credits) for the movie to feel familiar. As the opening credits roll, the score is immediately recognizable as Herrmann’s work and this equally serves to ground The Wrong Man as a ‘Hitchcock picture’. Like I said, these two fit together so well.
Interestingly though, while we typically think of Hitchcock’s partnership with Herrmann in big, bold pictures… think North by Northwest… at some level The Wrong Man feels stylistically familiar. However, this time around, Hitchcock throws himself into creating a more subdued tone. There’s a greater emphasis on stillness. The film is taut, quiet and uneasy. There are long stretches where the score disappears, leaving the audience with little choice but to stew in the discomfort. I’ve always found that it’s difficult to really miss a music score, until it’s gone and this certainly struck me here.
At the same time, the stylistic construction of The Wrong Man immediately places it in opposition of HItchcock’s other work, even during this period. As mentioned, Strangers on a Train is my favorite of all Hitchcock’s works. However, while The Wrong Man is certainly familiar, something here didn’t gel for me.
Throughout the film, it’s possible to see the auteurist flair Hitchock brought to his filmmaking. There are plenty of shots which could only come from a Hitchcock camera. However, The Wrong Man is missing one thing… Hitchcock’s trademark wit. This sense of fun is demonstrated at its most vibrant in something (again!) like North By Northwest.
In fact, The Wrong Man is dour. Certainly, the plot is quite dark with little to be witty about. However, watching it, the film feels more like a Henry Fonda vehicle with the occasional “Hitchcockian” flourish. You know these films, The Grapes of Wrath and The Ox-Bow Incident, heck, even Mister Roberts jump to mind. Few men had a monopoly on playing hard luck, down trodden working men quite like Henry Fonda and his flair with these characters comes across in the film. It’s almost impossible to not root for Manny. You immediately want him to beat these charges.
Throughout The Wrong Man, the audience is plunked squarely down in Manny’s perspective. We spend time with him at work, at home and with his wife. So, the crafting of suspense in this film is a tricky one. Manny is ‘The Wrong Man’, afterall. We know with absolutely no uncertainty that he did not commit these crimes. Instead, the suspense is rooted in just how such a miscarriage of justice can occur. The ‘vibe’ is one of ‘This Could Happen to You’. It’s heavy-handed and harsh and these words are very rarely used in connection with Hitchcock’s work. The Wrong Man could best be summed up in one way, this is Hitchcock meets Dragnet and those tones really don’t work well together.
All in all, The Wrong Man was wrong for me. The film is certainly well made. It’s a tiny, personal effort which does very much fit inside this brief, but interesting period of Hitchcock’s career. When evaluating this movie through a historical and completist perspective, as well as taking a look at this often over-shadowed period, The Wrong Man is certainly worth a watch. However, the legendary director has certainly released better and more entertaining films… so, do with that what you will.
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Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
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