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.



Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .