Thursday 18 October 2012

1,001 Films: "The Wrong Man" (1956)

The Wrong Man is one of Hitchcock's more intriguing second-rank efforts. Jazz musician Hank Fonda returns home from a day of errands only to find the cops waiting for him on the doorstep; dragged off to New York's 110th precinct, he's identified as (which is to say, mistaken for) a career stick-up man, and railroaded on an assault-robbery charge. As a rather defensive pre-film announcement from Hitch himself (effectively, "it's all true, honest") suggests, the suspense being generated here is of a different kind to that audiences had been used to from this director, founded on the presumption of innocence, rather than guilt. How long, we wonder, until everyone on screen finds out the protagonist didn't do it? (And how far through the wringer can a film put a man whose conscience is entirely clean?)

The real villain here, plainly, is the American legal system, and in the age of CSI, the evidence assembled against Fonda looks circumstantial at best; being a pre-Miranda film, the suspect is denied his one phone call - adding a further note of tension as wife Vera Miles worries away at home - and it takes forever to take his fingerprints, which end up proving nothing one way or the other. (In this respect - unlike many other of Hitchcock's peak-era features - it's almost impossible to imagine a straight remake.) And these aren't the only tenuous elements here. Perhaps only Hitch could make his hero the victim of an officeful of hysterical women, letting their emotions gang up on good sense: the moral of the story may be that female intuition isn't all that, and there's something at least questionable in the way the second and third acts ask Miles merely to express physical and psychological weakness - lashing out at Hank with a hairbrush, that most feminine of accoutrements, rather than standing by her man. (As it is, we get a "happy" ending, seeking with a couple of lines of on-screen text the marital devastation of the preceding scenes, that could scarcely be less convincing.) Even in this whiff of misogyny, it remains of note as as close to its director ever came to conventional noir, trapping its utterly passive hero somewhere between DoP Robert Burks' expressionist shadowplay - pinning Fonda to the walls - and another terrific, subtly insinuating Bernard Herrmann score.

The Wrong Man is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

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