31 May 2011

Movies: The Wrong Man

The Wrong Man (1956) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051207/

This Hitchcock thriller is a rarity in that it was based on a true story. Christopher "Manny" Balestrero, bass player in a nightclub, goes to his insurance company to borrow money to fund his wife's dental work and is mistakenly identified by the tellers as the armed robber that had hit the place twice in the past year.  We watch as he struggles to prove his innocence and keep his family together through his ordeal.

Stars Henry Fonda as Manny, Vera Miles as his wife Rose, and features the only Hitchcock appearance in one of his films where he actually talks.

If Hitch didn't tell us at the outset that the film is based on a true story this film would actually feel like a run of the mill mistaken identity story. According to the film trivia (and wikipedia) this film is also considered a rarity in that Hitch didn't change the facts of the story much. Apparently he left some of the exonerating evidence unmentioned in the film to ratchet up the suspense.

Even for a Hitchcockian thriller the film is heavily paced. I've noted on other Hitch films how the pace seems to slog along before Hitch suddenly slugs you in the gut at the end and leaves you breathless. Not so much in this film - perhaps the 'sticking to the facts' intent of the film interfered with the standard Hitch formula.

The film is still produced well for the most part, it is Hitch after all, but compared to his other work before and after it almost felt phoned-in at times. Fonda plays his part well. Most of the cops 'n lawyers cast are fine in their roles too. As a married couple the Fonda-Miles chemistry isn't really there, even before their troubles begin. Despite having two kids they kiss like strangers, she almost pulls away at times, though Fonda seems the more devoted of the two. Miles seems a little more over-acty than Fonda early on in the film, but she is still subtle compared to some of the other minor supporting cast.
The casting was rather amusing too in that Manny's family is all Italian except for Fonda. And Manny's kids show up a couple times so that we know he's a family man, then we never see them again. 

Here's where being a film historian would come in handy, and why my not being a film historian works against me. I don't know how many mistaken identity films had already been produced by '56, but I know there's been a lot of 'em made, especially for TV, by 2011.  These days recreations of stories like this end up on various basic-tier cable channels with much lower production values accompanied by worse acting. The 'mistaken identity plot' film will feel very recycled to today's film viewers.  Perhaps many of the following production scripts were influenced by this one? The adage that "truth is stranger than fiction" may have applied to the film in '56, but by 2011 fiction has overused the whole "mistaken identity, arrest, real criminal caught and innocent man exonerated" storyline.

I like Hitchcock's films. I try to catch the ones that aren't in the handful of Hitchcocks that are always trotted out like Psycho, North by Northwest, The Birds, Vertigo.  This film is good enough but not Hitch's best. It seems old hat today because that story has been done over and over. It's significant in that it's based on a true story, but really isn't a necessary watch unless you are striving to see the bulk of Hitchcock's films.

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