Mistaken identity is a theme that Alfred Hitchcock would come back to a number of times, but none so singularly and explicitly as in The Wrong Man (1956). At the start of the film, Hitchcock speaks to the audience, saying how this story is unlike any of his others in that it is completely true. That desire for accuracy carries further distinctions that ultimately make this a unique Hitchcock film. Unique for Hitchcock, but The Wrong Man is rather plain in relation to the rest of cinema. A few neat angles, yes, but none of his typical wit, no burning suspense, musical themes (Bernard Herrmann) that are restrained and conspicuous by their dearth of motion. Usually, I think it’s good not to notice the director’s hand, but with Hitchcock, one goes for that identity, the touches he gave, because it is so regular and so satisfying. So, while The Wrong Man is a fine film for a number of reasons, the execution left me with neither thrill nor epiphany.
Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is a bass player in a club band. He’s a regular, good man, not rich but steady. He sometimes plays a game with himself where he imagines bets on the races and works out how much he would have won or lost. His wife Rose (Vera Miles) is a nice wife without too much acumen for running a frugal home, but they love each other and their two kids and that’s good enough to be getting on with. Rose finds out that her wisdom teeth are impacted and it’ll cost $300 to fix it. They don’t have $300, so Manny goes to the insurance company to see if he can borrow against Rose’s policy. At the insurance office, the teller thinks she recognizes Manny as the man who held them up a few months ago. She, corroborated by the woman who was actually held up, contacts the police and Manny is picked up. He answers the description of the man who committed a number of robberies in the neighborhood, his handwriting is very similar to that of the robber, and he is positively identified by a number of witnesses. Before he knows it, he’s booked, arrested, arraigned, and on his way to trial. His luck does not improve.
One cannot fault the film for accomplishing everything it set out to do. The film is realistic. There are no caricatures of injustice, the pace is steady, the acting is plain as is the dialogue. But only one sequence of the movie really attempts to express Manny’s experience in a camera trick. Because Manny is such a sturdy fellow, he doesn’t crack up so much as grind it out with about as positive an attitude as he can. The greatest cost—because I think we all know how things turn out for Manny, if not the proximate causes—is to his wife who suffers the most. Her suffering, which turns out to be the most interesting aspect of the film, is dealt with honestly when it is dealt with at all, but is not dwelt upon long enough to hang the story on it. An alternative would have been to cast the plot’s resolution in a more interesting way (written by Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail). It starts off brilliantly with a fantastic matching shot but within a minute, it’s over. Click, bang, a little epilogue, and that’s all folks. It felt like I was cheated out of something.