Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 drama The Wrong Man remains an anomaly among the director's works. Eschewing his vividly colored, 50s-era studio slickness in favor of a street-level B&W, quasi-documentary form, Hitch held back nothing in telling the true story of Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda, in possibly his most harrowing performance, next to his role as The President in Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe). Manny is a New York nightclub combo's bassist who, through freakish happenstance, is mistakenly fingered as the perpetrator of a insurance office's robbery. The cops give this innocent family man his every due, but time after time, the evidence points only to him. With Manny's assured attitude of "an innocent man has nothing to fear," this would all be fine--except his nervous wife (a never-better Vera Miles), the mother of his two children, is run positively through the ringer by this turn of events. This horror is more hers than his.
Based on a Life magazine article by Maxwell Anderson (who co-wrote the script with Angus MacPhail), The Wrong Man is a markedly bleak entry into the Hitchcock canon that was no doubt seized upon by the director largely because of his own personal fear of being jailed. When Hitch was a boy, he once so displeased his father that Hitchcock Sr. sent the lad to a London jail with a note that instructed the constable to lock young Alfred up in a jail cell for 10 minutes or so as punishment. This famous event definitely scarred Hitch; one can feel the crushing rise in blood pressure this boy must have felt by looking at Fonda's shadowed, worried face right as the cell door clangs shut. With all the mistaken identity themes in his movies, The Wrong Man stands as Hitchcock's most blatant foray into Kafkaesque terror: the good boy labeled bad.
You can just feel something is different about The Wrong Man, right from the dramatically-photographed intro by Hitch himself: "This is Alfred Hitchcock speaking. In the past, I have given you many kinds of suspense pictures. But this time, I would like you to see a different one. The difference lies in the fact that this is a true story, every word of it. And yet it contains elements that are stranger than all the fiction that has gone into many of the thrillers that I've made before." But you have a hard time putting your finger on exactly the fine quality of this difference. Well, here it is: To give this picture that OOMPH it needed to send the viewer as over-the-edge as Vera Miles goes, Hitchcock filmed the movie--for the only time in his career--entirely on location. Thus the viewer sees the real Stork Club, where Manny Balestrero worked. We see the real insurance office where the crime took place. We see Balestrero's actual apartment in Queens, the Manhattan police station where he was booked, even the prison cell he was holed up in. I think, in this way, it's one of Hitch's most personal movies.
Somehow, all of this on-screen truth seeped into every facet of the movie, and ended up making it one of Alfred Hitchcock's all-time best (though, strangely and at the same time somehow expectedly, it's often lost in hubbubbed discussions of more flashy 50s offerings like Vertigo, North by Northwest, and To Catch A Thief). The horrifying and exhausting The Wrong Man features the usual top-notch contributions from cinematographer Robert Burks, composer Bernard Herrmann, and editor George Tomasini, as well as appearances by Anthony Quayle, Harold J. Stone, Neahmiah Persoff and, in cameos, Harry Dean Stanton, Bonnie Franklin, and Tuesday Weld!!