Last year, between the two of us, we watched an average of 317 movies.
This year our goal is to top that by watching at least one a day.
And as an extra special torture, we've decided to write about all of them.

02 March 2008

The Wrong Man, dir. Alfred Hitchcock (1956)

STEVE says:
This movie annoyed the hell out of me.

Hang on, let me back up. The Wrong Man was a pretty good movie. Based on a true story, Henry Fonda's Manny Balestrero is arrested after being misidentified as the man who held up several businesses in his neighbourhood. While trying to find people who will corroborate his story (that he was away on vacation with his wife during the time of the first robbery) Manny's wife goes insane and must be committed, leaving him to face the trial by himself. Fonda was great, Vera Miles as Mrs. Balestrero was great, and Hitch was top-of-his-game, even shooting outside the box on this one, using real New York locations instead of going his usual studio/back projection route.

What annoyed me here was the way the case was handled - whether by screenwriter Angus McPhail or by the actual persons involved, I cannot say. Either way, it was a mess. The women from the insurance office who identify Balestrero in the first place are simply paranoid. This man looks vaguely like the robber - in that he's tall and thin - and therefore he must be the robber. Nevermind asking why the robber - who never covered his face or tried to hide his identity in any way - would simply waltz into the office a few weeks later and transact business as usual. They jump immediately to the conclusion that Balestrero is their man. More unbelievable is the fact that they'd been robbed by this guy twice before. I'll allow that you might misidentify someone you've seen only once - but when he comes back a second time, you'd be able to tell him apart from Henry Fonda, I don't care how similar their features.

Then there's the police: Considering that The Wrong Man was filmed ten years before the Miranda v. Arizona case, I didn't exactly expect them to read Manny his rights. But all through the questioning he was flat-out denied a phone call, and no one - not even Manny himself - suggested that having a lawyer present might be a good idea. Manny was pretty much railroaded. You could argue that this is what really happened, but that only makes it all the more infuriating.

When Manny finally does hire Frank D. O'Connor to defend him, O'Connor puts the onus of finding witnesses and alibis on Manny! I ask you: What the hell kind of lawyer doesn't have an investigator working for him? If, gods forbid, I'm ever involved in any kind of legal complications, and my lawyer wants me to do the footwork, you'd better believe I'm going to ask for a kick-back.

And I would be remiss in talking about a movie that deals with a wrongfully accused man, were I not to mention the West Memphis Three. Manny Balestrero - at least this movie's representation of Manny Balestrero - spent one night in a holding cell, and about 45 seconds in prison after his arraignment. Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin have been in jail since 1993 - Damien, on death row - convicted of murdering three little boys in the Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis, Arkansas, with no actual physical evidence to prove that they committed the crimes, and despite the fact that - wait for it - Jessie was at a wrestling match several towns over at the time the crimes would have been committed. Nearly fifty years since the Balestrero case and it's only gotten worse.

I want to say "Regardless of all this, it was a good movie," but I'm not sure that makes sense. Yes, it was well-made, the acting and direction were superb, and the location shoots added a layer of reality that I find missing from so many Hitchcock films, due to his reliance on the "controlled environment" of shooting in a studio - but... can it really be a good movie when the true events were so ridiculously unbelievable?

I'm afraid the jury's still out on that one.


NIKKI says:
So many things made The Wrong Man enjoyable. Henry Fonda's performance, for one, as the workaday husband and father, the family man with his heart in the right place. Fonda does here what he does best, mixing stoicism and vulnerability, to create a complex character whose success you can't help but root for.

The story, too, was interesting, based on a true account. To witness Hitchcock's recreation of that account and watch how it all played out was genuinely compelling, if entirely frustrating that such ridiculousness could happen to anybody.

And Hitchcock's dark shadows and visionary direction made the thing even more watchable.

What was difficult to enjoy about this one was just how mad the whole situation was. How Manny was persecuted simply because he might, sort-of, perhaps looked like another robber working his neighbourhood. The women at the insurance office coulda sworn he was the robber, and so without physical, or even remotely logical, evidence, Manny is charged and spends time in jail. Then he is forced to spearhead his own investigation, with Manny and his wife travelling the countryside looking for that much-needed evidence to clear him.

I suppose this all happened, but can you believe it? Well, I guess we can, because it's not a stand alone incident, and it's not something that stopped occurring as investigative techniques and technologies improved.

In all, the history lesson, coupled with Hitchcock at his swift directorial best, made this one a good, if hellishly frustrating, piece.


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