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Tragic Simplicity: Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Wrong Man’

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Manny Balestrero is a simple man. He has a wife, Rose, two young boys, and a mother who loves him. He lives in a modest house in Queens and plays double bass at The Stork Club for $85 a week. Like many young families, the Balestreros are hurting for money. Manny (Henry Fonda), in need of $300 for Rose’s dental surgery, visits his insurance office to borrow against her policy. This is where the trouble begins in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 film The Wrong Man. Manny is identified by the women of the office as the man who robbed them at gunpoint, which sets off a chain of events that lead to the man being identified by the police (and numerous others) as the gun-toting assailant.

The power of The Wrong Man lies in its modest and sober storytelling. Devoid of glamorous women and international espionage, what we are left with is the tragic truth of what happens to a man who is mistaken for a criminal. Unlike many of Hitch’s protagonists, Manny is afforded little agency in the quest to clear his name, as he’s at the mercy of his accusers, shunted around by the police and exposed to numerous humiliations in the form of procedural. Like Job, the character is subject to misfortune and becomes a person to whom events simply happen. Unable to control his own trajectory, Manny’s identity is systematically stripped away as he becomes not a man, but a criminal “object.”

Fonda’s performance is one of incredible austerity and opaque emotion, and the only glimpses we get into Manny’s emotional life come through a wild-eyed look, a clench of the fists, and finally, a smile. In perhaps one of the most poignant, tense and emotionally fraught scenes committed to film, Manny is processed and finger-printed by police with a blank and unreadable expression. With his hat removed, Manny appears strangely diminutive despite his height. In this context, the character is perhaps one of Hitchcock’s most sympathetic leading men. The viewers are the only ones privy to what is happening inside Manny’s head, as we understand the tide of righteous anger and fear that churns inside him as he is led to a jail cell.

The Wrong Man may afford little discussion, sandwiched as it is between several of Hitchcock’s masterworks. I have often found myself drawn to Hitchcock as a director who tells one story but really telling another, however I don’t believe The Wrong Man to be about anything other then it professes to be: a simple story about a regular man who is thrown into irregular circumstances. The Wrong Man is, perhaps, Hitchcock’s most authentic film.

Lex Corbett (@trazism) is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Toronto, Ontario. She studied cinema, both theoretical and practical, at the University of Toronto and OCAD U, respectively, and currently enamoured with the films of both the American Independent Cinema and Alfred Hitchcock.

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