This is sort of an oddball Hitchcock. It’s based on a true story. But being a Hitchcock film during his heyday, it is well worth discussing.
The “Wrong Man” is the true story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero a musician living in Queens, New York with his wife and two sons who in 1953 was accused of a series of armed robberies based on his close resemblance to the actual robber. The movie walks you through Manny Balestrero’s life on the day of his arrest. He’s coming home early in the morning from his job as a musician at the upscale night club, the Stork Club and after breakfast he discusses with his wife how to finance the dental work that she needs. Because they live pay check to pay check he intends to get a loan on his wife’s life insurance policy. But when he goes to the insurance office two of the women there think they recognize him as the man who robbed the office in the not-too-distant past. After Manny leaves, their manager calls the police and gives them Manny’s name and address to have him arrested for the hold up.
The police call up Manny’s home and surreptitiously determine what time he is expected home. Two plains cloth policemen, Lee and Matthews, are waiting outside his house in their car and intercept him before he gets inside. They inform him there’s been a complaint against him and tell him to come with them to straighten it out. The police have Manny walk through several local stores that were robbed by the same man and allow the store personnel to have a chance to identify him. They then go back to the precinct where Manny is told to print up a note dictated to him to match the writing on a note that the actual robber handed the clerk at the insurance company. When Officer Lee says that there is some resemblance to the printing in the note, he asks Manny to print it again. This time Lee notes that a misspelling by Manny matches a misspelling in the original note. This convinces the police officers that Manny is the actual armed robber.
Next, they have Manny in a lineup and the two insurance office clerks identify him as the robber. Following this identification, he is formally charged with the crimes and remanded to the Queensborough lock up. We see Manny being led to his cell and his tie taken away to prevent possible suicide. And we are shown Manny desperate and confused as he awaits the next steps in his nightmare.
Meanwhile his family is frantically searching for Manny and assuming that he has met with an accident or some other misfortune. Finally, much later the police leave a message at his home about his arrest and the arraignment in the morning.
At the arraignment Manny is told that his bail will be $6,500. Lacking this large amount of money, he is remanded into custody and processed into the long-term jail. He goes through all the usual indignities and is housed in a cell. But very soon after his family manages to borrow the money and he is released on bail.
What follows is the process of Manny attempting to prove his innocence. He hires a good lawyer and attempts to find witnesses to prove where he was on the day of the insurance company hold up. Of the three possible witnesses two have died in the interim and one cannot be located. At this point, Manny’s wife Rose suffers a nervous breakdown and goes into a clinical depression for which she is hospitalized. The trial begins and the prosecutor paints Manny’s poverty in terms that make it reasonable that he would have been desperate enough to commit the robberies. The witnesses are paraded into the court and dramatically identify Manny as the armed robber. But during the summation, a juror irritably stands up and complains about the drawn-out nature of the testimony and causes a mistrial to be declared.
Manny has now reached the end of his rope. His mother is staying over to watch the kids in his wife’s absence and in resignation he tells her that he wishes they would just convict him and end the agony. She begs him to pray to God for strength and afterward we see him praying. And then we see overlayed onto the scene of Manny praying, another face. Another man, and the man’s face has a general similarity to Manny’s face. Then we see the man enter a small grocery store and attempt to rob it. He claims to have a gun in his pocket. But the Mom-and-Pop owners of the store knock him down and subdue him.
The man is arrested and is in the precinct being processed for the robbery attempt. Walking through the precinct and noticing the robber is Officer Matthews. He walks out of the precinct but after a few moments he stops, looks puzzled and goes back into the precinct.
Now we see Manny at work at the Stork Club and his boss tells him they want him at the precinct. Manny reaches the precinct and his lawyer is there and tells him the good news. Now we hear the same two insurance clerks picking out the real robber in a line up. When they walk out, they see Manny and embarrassedly hurry past him. Officer Matthews smiles at Manny and pats his shoulder. Then the robber walks by Manny and they both look at each other in surprise at their resemblance. Manny accuses him saying, “Do you know what you’ve done to my wife?” But the robber is just shuffled off to his fate.
In the final scene Manny visits his wife at the mental hospital where she is still deeply sunk into depression. A post script says that two years later Rose is fully cured and the family has moved to Florida.
Hitchcock made a very good selection. This story contains many of the components that a fictional account would include to provide human interest. The innocent man caught in a circumstantial nightmare where his blameless life cannot protect him from a cruel twist of fate. His accidental resemblance to a criminal and being in the wrong place at the wrong time almost destroy his life and that of his family. Only another twist of fate saves him.
Hitchcock parades us through the police procedural but from the point of view of the innocent man trapped in the gears of a soulless large city’s law enforcement machine. The dehumanization and callousness of the experience is mirrored in Henry Fonda’s haunted expression. The harrowing details of his and Rose’s struggle is extremely effective in drawing out the audience’s sympathy. Vera Miles as Rose and Anthony Quayle as their attorney Frank O’Connor are both very good. But even Fonda isn’t the lead character. The star of the show is terror, the terror of the wrongly accused. The story reminds me of a Greek tragedy. But in this case the sin is not hubris. It’s living in New York City where no one knows their neighbors and no one is your neighbor.