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Review: The Wrong Man (1956)





In Life’s feature on the bizarre case of Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero, a bashful, honest, family-loving string bass player of the then snazzy Stork Club, who was arrested for crimes he never committed, Herbert Brean, the writer, supposes the inconceivable event possessing the “somnambulist quality of a bad dream.” Alfred Hitchcock, basing a film on the incident three years later, conferred on the “bad dream” a touch of Kafkaesque disquietude. Though jettisoning much of the suspenseful streak that characterises his style, Hitchcock introduces in The Wrong Man (1956) a new suspense that is induced by a palpable sense of emotional detachedness. For years to come this would ultimately evolve to a semi-documentary approach of impassive-observing that culminates in the menacing sobriety ofPsycho.

To enhance the desperation of a tangled, never-ending nightmare, Hitchcock pardonably distorts a few facts to give rise to the dramatic. In the film, Manny’s quest of proving his innocence is devastated by the removal of the three people that might provide him alibis- two are dead and one cannot be found. Vera Miles delivers a superb performance as Manny’s affectionate, stalwart, suffering wife, whose resilience snaps under the weight of mounting stress, resulting in a protracted nervous breakdown that doesn’t seem to dissolve at the end of the film, where she remains unmoved by her husband’s cheerful news.

Amongst other concerns, the harrowing tale of Manny Balestrero reveals the defect of an unquestioning social system when dealing with plausible cases of mistaken identities. Interviewed by Life of the specific things he’d learned from the experience, Manny, true to his magnanimous, expansive, amiable character, credited his family and friends of making the ordeal more bearable, and believed the detectives and witnesses to be largely blameless for the blunder. When confronting the real stick-up man in the police station, Manny stared into the man’s deep-set eyes, of which he noticed immediately a resemblance, and asked: “Do you realise what you have done to my wife?”

Yet on reflection, the callousness of those who are responsible for sending a wrong man to jail is truly the most chilling aspect of the event and the film. One of the witnesses remained impenitent and said it wasn’t her intention of wronging an innocent man, but she still thought her impulsive reaction was right. In the film, the witnesses fled in guilt when they saw Manny, and the detective, his stern expression unrelaxed, merely gave Manny a pat on the back and said, “Alright, Manny?” In the Life article, the writer wryly observed that Manny received no apology from the detectives or the witnesses, and Manny, after much thought, said he believed they would’ve acted differently if they had “a bit more conscience.”

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