The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest English-Language Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
Following eyewitness identifications, Christopher Emmanuel (“Manny”) Balestrero (Henry Fonda, tremendous) is picked up by the police as an insurance office thief. The ordeal of his trying to prove his innocence, which the deaths of two alibi witnesses confounds, plunges wife Rose (Vera Miles, heartrending) into an abyss of psychotic guilt premised in the fear that her own financial demands triggered Manny’s presumed crime. In The Wrong Man, Alfred Hitchcock once again is well understood as a Roman Catholic artist.
Frighteningly combining arrogance and stupidity, the police seize on every opportunity to disprove the latter but each time confirm it. The passage where Manny is booked, incarcerated and, after a long night, arraigned in court encompasses Hitchcock’s most brilliant filmmaking. Almost pure pseudo-documentary, it is absolutely objective and, simultaneously, absolutely subjective—a profound revelation of Manny’s shame, distress and fear. Throughout the film, Robert Burks’s black-and-white cinematography blends documentary realism and dreamy noirishness.
Beginning with a “chance” configuration of Manny a step ahead of, and visible between, two police officers on the street, the three-shot is a recurrent motif. It reaches its apotheosis in a psychiatrist’s office: seated Rose, despondent, desk lamp, enormous from camera perspective, standing psychiatrist, face obscured by the lamp.
Finally, someone else is arrested for the crimes in question. There is a telling discrepancy between how much “the right man” is supposed to look like Manny and how little he actually does. Manny turns on him: “Do you know what you have done to my wife?” Ah! But there is as little reason to believe in this new man’s guilt as there was to believe in Everyman Manny’s guilt.* The system, given its internal flaws, may have lighted upon another “wrong man.”
Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail wrote the terrific script.
* Yes, the new suspect is caught in the act of attempting to rob a store; but he may be telling the truth when he says he has never done this before. The whole movie protests: he could be innocent, too, of the crimes for which Manny had been accused.
Like Manny, he is the fourth man in the line-up and is identified by the eyewitnesses who once identified Manny in the same manner, who count off, “One, two, three, four.” Manny also was the “fourth man” in his line-up, and the same eyewitnesses’ recollection of this helps determine their new, presumably correct identification. Just as they did with Manny, the police are doing everything to stack the deck against a suspect rather than to “eliminate a suspect,” as they claim. Manny’s indictment of this replacement for him shows he has learned nothing from his ordeal. The system remains intact because Manny’s head is full of nonsense about guilt, individual responsibility, chance, fate.
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