Skip to main content

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man
(1956)

(SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man. He told Hitch “your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

It’s easy to understand why the director wanted to make the film. The subject matter relates, after all, to his lifelong fear of authority, and more particularly, the authorities (having been famously locked in a cell courtesy of his dad, for five long minutes, at an impressionable age). Here was a man, Manny Balestrero (a typically sombre Henry Fonda) unjustly accused of armed robbery and put on trial after officers of the law essentially fitted him up, intent on securing a solved case with minimum fuss. Manny’s life proceeds to fall apart, most disastrously in the case of wife Rose (an impressive Vera Miles), who suffers a nervous breakdown and ends up in an institution.

Bowers: It’s nothing for an innocent man to worry about. It’s the fella that’s done something wrong that has to worry.

Hitch, filming in New York – well, the bits that weren’t shot in the nice-and-warm on a soundstage – imbues The Wrong Man with the kind of authentic lustre you’d expect from a true-life tale. The early passages, as Manny is bounced around by the police and pointed out by witnesses, carry an effective sense of the terror of absolute helplessness when the system announces it has you in its sights (albeit also of Manny’s passivity and cluelessness about his rights). There are potent moments, such as his misspelling of the stick-up note the way the perpetrator did, and the manner in which its quite easy to see Manny, through the eyes of the victims, as tantamount to Once Upon a Time in the West’s Frank rather than the mild-mannered husband and father he is. And the entire opening section dramatizes the lie of “If you haven’t done anything, you have nothing to fear”.

But one is also aware of the over-stylisation Truffaut points out. Particularly egregious is the “POV” of the incarcerated Manny, as the camera faces him and then moves around and above and below, capturing his despair/disorientation.

Once Manny is out on bail, The Wrong Man’s tension mostly evaporates, with Anthony Quayle appearing as an attorney who won’t even get to win his client’s trial and Rose gradually losing her grip. Hitch fessed up to the failure that was honouring to the facts of the case, whereby a significant chunk of the picture’s second half is devoted to Rose’s deteriorating state (Miles may be very good, but that doesn’t mean the scenes really play).

More damagingly, there is a mistrial (“Your honour, do we have to sit here and listen to this?” asks one of the jurors!) And then the actual guy is caught (Richard Robbins, sharing a certain bony facial structure with the leading man). Hitchcock Liked the “ironic coincidence” of the perp being discovered as Fonda is praying, but I don’t think that’s the message conveyed. Rather, it plays out sincerely, as divine intervention, and so represents another miscalculation on his part.

Hitch was a little deflated by Truffaut’s charges, one suspects (“Let’s just say it wasn’t my kind of picture”), but it solidifies in my mind that here he was, during his most prolific period, amid some of his greatest successes, but with a run of four movies (form The Trouble with Harry to The Wrong Man) that really weren’t all that. The best of them, To Catch a Thief, pales in comparison to other highs from that decade (Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, North by Northwest).

Pauline Kael called The Wrong Manunusually drab”. She recognised its “almost Kafkaesque nightmare realism” but complaining that the material slips into tedium rather than tightening the screws. There’s even some of the director’s favoured cod-psychology thrown in for good measure (“Her mind is in an eclipse… She sees great dangers everywhere” the sage shrink tells Manny). Maybe that is what they told him, but it’s also the rare point in the picture where Hollywood hyperbole seems to intrude.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.