Title: The Wrong Man
Release Date: December 22, 1956
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Alfred Hitchcock introduces this film in a prologue where he notes that it is a rare occasion where he’s making a thriller based on a true-life story. Hitchcock always is fascinated with telling “wrong man” stories, so it’s not a surprise that the case of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero’s false accusation for armed robbery in 1951 in New York City would appeal to him.
The story begins with Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), a musician who performs in a night club, needing to work out the family finances to pay for dental work for his wife, Rose (Vera Miles). He goes to a life insurance company office to borrow against Rose’s policy, and the staff there identify him as the same man who robbed the office on two other occasions. The police take in Manny and the staff at two local stores also identify him as the robber.
Manny is arrested and held in jail overnight before being arraigned the next day. Once bail is posted by some relatives, it’s up to Manny and Rose to find witnesses who can provide alibis for the dates of the crimes. The stress and guilt of the ordeal leads to Rose suffering a mental breakdown.
Despite Hitchcock’s introduction, the movie is not a thriller or even really suspenseful. The strengths of the movie are its depictions of the mundane procedures of being processed through the criminal justice system. Fonda is perfectly cast as the every man (and with such an innocent face, how can anyone think he’s guilty?) bewildered by experiencing all these things for the first time, and holding on to hope that his innocence will win the day.
The film provides a happy ending, although the real Balestrero family continued to suffer mental and financial distress. Most disturbing is that we are still having “Wrong Man” stories to this very day, often with tragic endings. Words utter in the film – “you fit the profile” – are chilling similar to the words used to justify police killings of innocent Black and brown men in recent years.