Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero (Henry Fonda), a New York bass player, works nights at the Stork Club and comes home to his wife Rose (Vera Miles) and their children in the early morning. Although he likes to chart the horses while riding the subway, perhaps because his family is never financially ahead, he seldom bets on his selections. He and Rose lead what might be described as a life of quiet desperation; soon, however, they find out what true desperation is. "Manny," as Balestrero is nicknamed, goes to borrow money on his wife's insurance policy and in the process is misidentified as a holdup man by one of the cashiers, whose fellow employees join in the error. Returning home, Manny is picked up by two detectives who take him in for questioning. In the course of interrogating him, they ask him to write the words of a note which had been used by the holdup man. The anxious Manny accidentally misspells a word and soon finds himself charged with robbery and spending the night in a Queens jail.
In the morning, he is freed on the bail raised by his family and proceeds to engage a lawyer, Frank O'Connor (Anthony Quayle), who believes in his innocence. O'Connor explains to Manny and Rose the importance of establishing an alibi, but the people he might have used as witnesses either have died or cannot be found. Rose begins to despair and finally has a nervous breakdown. After she is placed in a mental hospital, the saddened Manny stands trial, but a mistrial is declared and he must face the entire process once again. He prays; and at that very moment, the holdup man walks into a store to rob again but is subdued by the owners. One of the detectives who arrested Manny notices the resemblance between the two, and Manny is finally cleared of the charges and released. He goes to the mental hospital to tell Rose that the nightmare is over, but for her, it is not. "That's fine for you," she tells him, staring blankly into space.
Although this story sounds similar to the sort of nightmarish fabrication which might be expected from Alfred Hitchcock, the premise is not his own. The Wrong Man is singular among his works in that the story is a true one, a fact that he emphasizes in a personal appearance at the beginning of the film. It is sometimes said that Hitchcock needs very fanciful plots in order to make the kind of film associated with him, but it is impossible to believe this after seeing The Wrong Man, which is one of his most hypnotic and compelling films.
In The Wrong Man, we find both the themes and techniques closely associated with Hitchcock. He engages freely in the subjective shots for which he is celebrated, building up in the audience the same fear and claustrophobia which Manny feels when he is arrested and locked up. These sequences have a quiet intensity and concentration which reflect the director's masterful control over what may be his own anxiety; Hitchcock has stated many times that he has a dread of jails and the police as a result of a traumatic childhood experience. The mistaken identity theme is one which Hitchcock has favored often, but as a rule, it has appeared in films with considerably less sobriety of tone than The Wrong Man. Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959) are more appropriate works to display Hitchcock's rich sense of humor than the story of a man and his wife who actually suffered the tragedy described by the film. Regarding the theme of the transfer of guilt, one of Hitchcock's most striking and individual motifs, nowhere in the director's work is there a more dramatic example than that of the wife who goes mad by assuming the guilt she perceives to be part of the fabric of her life and her husband's even though he is completely innocent. '
The exteriors and certain interiors of the film were shot on location in New York, and Robert Burks resourcefully varies the black and white tonality of the film without ever departing from the prevailing visual mood, delicately -poised between realism and expressionism. Although Hitchcock and Burks had become enthusiasts of the expressive use of color long before this black and white film was made, they are no less inspired here in the use of the drab settings and downbeat images which dominate the story. Their imaginative re-creation of the cheerless environment into a visualization of an emotional nightmare is one of the finest aspects of the film. Hitchcock creates tension in the opening sequence as Manny leaves the nightclub simply by introducing the figures of two policemen who stroll along behind the musician for a few moments.
After Manny is arrested, the scene of his interrogation is handled with a restraint and matter-of-factness which generally characterizes the style of the film, but at a key moment, the suppleness of Hitchcock's technique enhances the presentation of the scene. Manny has been attempting to remain calm and cooperative, but when he is finally overcome by feelings of helplessness and frustration, the camera withdraws to a high angle, making him appear even more vulnerable than before despite the fact that he has become vocally assertive. Similar touches enhance other scenes, such as the one in the jail cell, in which Manny is overcome by a feeling of claustrophobia and the camera begins to move in a little circle around him, the movement becoming increasingly rapid so that the still man eventually seems to whirl helplessly in the space of the frame. The severity of Hitchcock's formal control results in the film's most ostentatious and stirring moment, which occurs late in the film. In the scene there is a slow dissolve from the face of the praying Manny to the face of the actual holdup man, a dissolve in which the faces of the men merge as if Manny's prayer is mysteriously being answered.
The filming of Rose's breakdown is characterized by a thoughtfulness and visual tension which make this sequence perhaps the most outstanding in the film. Most of it is directed with visual restraint, as Rose, initially calm but becoming increasingly disturbed, expresses her feeling of helplessness over their situation. When he perceives that she is becoming hysterical, Manny moves to touch her and she picks up a hairbrush and hits him on the head with it. Hitchcock breaks up this brief action within the long sequence into a series of short shots—close-ups of Rose and Manny, the raising of the brush, the smashing of the brush into a mirror after Manny has been hit, and Manny's face distorted by its reflection in the broken mirror. The sequence ends with Rose retreating into a trance and oppressively dominating the compostion as she stares blankly and virtually whispers that she is ill.
Although it is important to realize that each shot in a Hitchcock film is carefully prepared so that it will relate both visually and psychologically to the overall conception in Hitchcock's mind, it is also important to note that Hitchcock's interpreters play an essential part in this conception. It is possible that the very fact of having to follow direction so closely in terms of movement and gesture has a liberating effect on actors and actresses in a Hitchcock film. Whatever the reason, no director elicits better performances than Hitchcock, and Henry Fonda and Vera Miles are among the finest examples of this. Miles's restrained dialogue and her subtle changes of expression which cul¬minate in the empty gaze she finally assumes for the remainder of the film produce one of the most credible and brilliantly realized nervous breakdown sequences in cinema. Similarly, Fonda expresses his subdued character re¬markably, mostly through the ways in which Manny looks at the world around him.
The calmness of the film, a result of Hitchcock's understanding of the characters and his attitute toward the story, makes it more dramatic than if it were overwrought, and every aspect of the film contributes to this sense of calmness. The music of Bernard Herrmann, which appropriately emphasizes the bass, is discreetly somber, and the complex soundtrack is also subtle and restrained. The screenplay is admirably straightforward, and the relatively prosaic quality of the dialogue not only encourages identification with the characters, but also sets off the more poetic quality of Hitchcock's cinematic realization.
Although it is relentlessly bleak, The Wrong Man betrays no cynicism and makes no recourse to a facile pessimism. This apparent destruction of a man by a merciless stroke of fate, which becomes the actual destruction of his more fragile wife, describes a cruel and uncaring universe with great spiritual resonance. Perhaps this is because the characters are whole human beings, not choosing to suffer in the manner of crippled characters found in more neurotic films, but suffering nonetheless against their will, their limitations used against them by the caprices of circumstance. The gentle Manny journeys through hell with a childlike awe, but this same innocence prevents him from ever knowing of the inner hell of his wife, burning quietly until it blazes out of control to provide this masterpiece of the desolation of human existence with its final tragic irony.
There is something strangely consoling in Hitchcock's presentation. His subjective techniques are used to encourage identification with Manny, but we are not encouraged to the same extent of identification with Rose, at least not by the camera. With Manny, we find at last that we are overwhelmed with sadness for her assumption of his nonexistent guilt. Hitchcock's choices when determining the visual and psychological nature of each shot result in the possibility of feeling compassion, a consoling emotion. He makes The Wrong Man appear to be a detached and restrained film, even while reaching profound fears within the consciousness of the spectator, until the final meeting in the mental hospital between the heartbroken. Manny and the insane Rose, which brings forth the feeling of catharsis which he has held in suspense.