Wednesday, August 21, 2019
Hitch Watch: The Wrong Man (1956)
Format: TCM on DVR
I had no idea what this movie was about prior to giving it a watch, so real quick:
Directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock, this is based on a true story (apparently?) of a musician who goes to his insurance company to see if he can take out on a loan his wife's life insurance for some dental work, only to be identified by the clerks as the man who committed two robberies of the company in the prior 9 months or so. The police pick him up, assuring him that if he didn't do it, there's nothing to worry about, but in a line-up, he's identified by multiple witnesses (the robber also hit a few stores) and even his handwriting sample seems to match.
But we, the audience, know that he *didn't* do it from the very start. While the plot seems like something Hitch would have run with, anyway, he does intro the film to say "yeah, you can't write this stuff, it sounds too crazy and coincidental, but it all really happened". And, I suppose, it did.
Frankly, I was wildly impressed by stars Henry Fonda and Vera Miles. Fonda plays a musician who is just scraping by (I mean, 1950's scraping by- he's got a 2-story house, a gorgeous wife and 2 kids in NYC and his job is playing the upright bass at The Stork Club). Fonda is famed for playing decent fellows, and this is no exception, but his character is a deeply recognizable sort of person, muted with those outside his family, maybe seems a tad dull or naive, but at home is a loving husband and father. He's just a decent guy who never got close enough to trouble to even recognize it. Miles plays his wife, who already feels guilty about needing things and feeling like she doesn't do enough to contribute.
The film doesn't necessarily sensationalize, it just puts you in the position of being an honest guy who literally did not do it, from the dizzying experience of arrest and arraignment, and the complex situation of finding yourself accused and needing to prove somehow, some way that you weren't there. You weren't the guy. And the cops have a half-dozen people saying "nope, I saw him and that's him".
From finding an attorney to trying to find witnesses to prove it wasn't you, to hearing what the prosecution has to say about you to a jury as they detail what a bad dude you are(n't), it's harrowing. But add in how the accusations and seeming injustice can impact your loved ones, including your wife who already suffers from depression, and a case of mistaken identity just starts to shatter everything around the victim.
Flat out, Vera Miles' descent into depression and a "flat affect" is utterly unnerving and believable, and for all the usual fallout in film noir, because this was "unearned" by the character, but fallout in the worst way. The cops were doing their job with the tools they had, but despite the fact someone is, in theory, innocent until proven guilty, that sure as hell isn't how the system is set-up. Disappearing into a well of despair in the face of such randomly induced hopelessness is going to happen to some people, and what could have been a corny portrayal or maudlin instead comes off as heart-wrenching as she simply fades into a shell of herself.
I'll also say - the movie doesn't exactly let the NYPD off the hook. It's no amazing police work that sets Manny/ Henry Ford free, it's a random encounter with the actual criminal by one of the cops who worked Manny's case and him realizing maybe Manny wasn't their guy after all, while Manny was between trials, that sets him free for good. It's enough to satisfy the Hayes Office, but it's not n argument for trusting in law enforcement - after all, once a cop sees a case closed and a crook go to jail, how many cops worry about the fact they may have sent the wrong person to the slammer or to the chair? We already know way too many people have been found to be innocent who were on death row, some of whom walked out, some of whom were already executed.
There's no investigation of where Manny spent the money or where it went, claims of gambling aren't corroborated, merely thrown out there as motive (although, I have no idea what really went down in court).
The film is often categorized as noir, so I'll add the tag, despite the fact it doesn't match my criteria for the label, necessarily. It's a true story and it doesn't rely on anyone giving in to their worst instincts to tell the tale of a man caught up in something beyond his control, there's no impulses followed that shouldn't be, no damning of a behavior or system.
But there is a man in an unescapable position - it's just not one of his making.
BTW, I've seen the pic of the real life Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero, and while he looks nothing like Henry Fonda, the guy who did perform the robberies looks like a lost twin. It's bonkers.
I am glad that Hitch stuck so close to the real story and realized the story needed little embellishment - the facts as they were felt more bizarre than anything Hitch could have a screenwriter drum up. But his touch for character and building tension are on high display here, and the movie just works.
last thing: There are two little girls who appear briefly in the movie, and they both looked familiar, one vaguely and the other much more so. Apparently the one I sorta recognized was Tuesday Weld, and the other that was really ringing a bell was an elementary school aged Bonnie Franklin, who looked like a miniature Bonnie Franklin.