* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 March 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Hitchcock in Black & White)
Is there any phrase that messes with how one views a film more than "based on a true story?" Once it's been connected with a movie, it becomes difficult to judge a film as just a movie; every emotion connected with the story and characters becomes heightened. That's not a terribly bad thing, especially for a movie like The Wrong Man, which is meant to demonstrate a point rather than involve the audience in a specific story. Hitchcock directly addresses the audience at the start of this movie, cannily playing up his tendency to make thrillers so that, even though he mentions that the story is true and shocking, we don't feel like we're watching a message movie.
It's exactly what it is, though - the story of Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) isn't so much the story of a man trying to prove his innocence, but a view over his shoulder as society fails him, causing a case of mistaken identity to tear his life, and the lives of his family, apart. Indeed, Manny is a relatively passive character, perhaps too passive, as he is shuffled around the police department without even raising his voice. That's okay, though, because the point is that this could happen to anyone, and if Manny were to rebel, the movie suddenly becomes about how he overcame being wrongfully accused, as opposed to how dangerous a system without proper protections for the accused can be.
The movie does a good job of getting that message across. Fifty years later, it's easy to shake our heads at the lack of Miranda warnings, or cases built entirely on eyewitnesses despite strong evidence to the contrary.
Which, however, leads to the movie's biggest fault - an ending that is both too bleak and too good to be true. Based upon what we learn, Manny's attorney (Anthony Quayle) should be able to demolish the prosecution's case, but instead it gets further tangled up. Soon, though, a useful deus ex machina appears, and a piece of closing text all but uses the phrase "happily ever after".
Still, the movie does have its strengths. One of the most taut scenes in Hitchcock's work comes early on, as the tellers at an insurance company glance at Manny and are convinced he's the man who robbed them twice. Their fears are groundless, but no less real. There's also a frightening professionalism to the police, who never seem malevolent, but also never seem to step back and see that they're doing Manny a great wrong.
Is this Hitchcock's best movie? No, probably not even in the top fifty percent (insert caveat about below-average Hitchcock compared to just about anybody else at the top of their game here). It's not much of a suspense picture, but it does a fine job of getting its point across.