Accused: The Wrong Man (1957)


The Wrong Man was promoted as Alfred Hitchcock’s first film based on a true story, and the director went to great lengths to secure its authenticity. To shoot the story of Manny Balestrero, who was falsely accused of robbing a life insurance company, Hitchcock shot the film on location in NYC, and cast supporting parts with many of the actual participants in the case. The movie strives for “reality”, and much of it plays as a heightened kind of docudrama, focused through Balestrero’s POV as he is arrested, processed, and put to trial. Manny’s world of Manhattan night clubs and his Jackson Heights home shrinks to the space between his shoes on the ground of his jail cell, seen with impressive clarity on the new Warner Archive Blu-ray. Manny’s resemblance to a hold-up artist has undone the life he had built over forty-three years, as his wife suffers a nervous breakdown from the stress. For no reason at all, a void has opened up and swallowed him whole.


The screenplay by Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail was based on a 1953 LIFE magazine article by Herbert Brean, “A Case of Identity”, which laid out Balestrero’s story. A steady bass player at Manhattan’s Stork Club, with a wife named Rose (Vera Miles) and two children, he had a penchant to play the horses but no debilitating vices. Needing money to help pay for his wife’s dental work, Manny went to his life insurance company to see if he could borrow money off of the policy. While there, a few employees become convinced that Manny is a dead ringer for the man who previously held up their office. They call the cops and Manny becomes the prime suspect. Then a handwriting sample sort of matches, and more witnesses give positive IDs. The case seems insurmountable until he is saved by intrepid grocery owners who capture the real thief, Charles J. Daniell, who soon confesses to be the real purveyor of  the Jackson Heights heists. But Rose cannot handle the stress of the trial, and suffers a nervous breakdown. She is moved to a psychiatric facility, and remains there at the end of the article, though the film has a more qualified happy ending.

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Brean described the evening of the arrest as having “the somnambulistic quality of a bad dream” that, “became a nightmare.” The film hews closely to Brean’s text, from the tone to the performance style. Henry Fonda plays Balestrero as something of an ashen sleepwalker, paralyzed by fear into zombiedom. Brean writes that “Balestrero is a timid man, by his own admission afraid of his own shadow. He has never been in a fight in his life, never carried a weapon, never been arrested, never even received a traffic ticket. As the net of evidence tightened, his mind spun and he did not know what to do or say. ‘When things happen like that and you’re innocent’,  he has said since, ‘you want to shout and scream but you can’t. I don’t know how many ways I tried to say to them I was innocent. They acted as if I was guilty and wanted me to say so.”


After the police officers walk him from the front door into the police car, the film’s POV becomes severely restricted, Fonda getting suffocated by the law. While in the car, Hitchcock and DP Robert Burks have Balestrero looking right and left, confronted with extreme close-ups of the arresting officers, their impassive mugs impossible to read. While their faces obscure most of the frame, in one shot the blurry silhouette of his wife Rose (Vera Miles) is visible, indicative of his past world that will now be left behind. Hitchcock said “I enjoyed making this film because, after all, that is my greatest fear — fear of the police.” The famous story goes that as a six-year-old, his father sent him to the police station with a note. He had apparently committed some sin, because the cop locked him in jail for five minutes, with little Hitchcock unaware of the reason why, or if he would ever get out. Whether it’s apocryphal or not, it compactly conveys the sense of free-floating terror that motivates many of Hitchcock’s heroes, their mistaken identities or fractured psyches.  Through incompetence or animus the police are able to take your life away. You can see the personality draining out of Balestrero the further he is pushed through the penal system. And already a quiet man, he seems to become stiller, in a permanent state of stunned silence.

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Hitchcock told American Cinematographer that “I want it to look like it had been photographed in New York in a style unmistakably documentary.” He shot on a number of real locations from Balestrero’s story, including his home in Jackson Heights, the Stork Club where he worked, the 110th and Roosevelt Avenue police stations, Ridgewood Felony Court, and the actual courtroom used for Manny’s trial at Queens Felony Court. The Greenmont Sanitarium in Ossining, NY, where Rose Balestrero was sent following her breakdown, is used as a setting for the final third of the film, with Rose’s real nurses hired as extras. Now, as scrupulous as Hitchcock is as at researching the events of the story, at no point does it feel like it is presented in documentary style. There are too many composed shots, including the POV material which crops out most of the world outside Manny’s eyes. Hitchcock is too interested in getting inside Balestrero’s head to stick to an objective reporting of the facts, instead conveying the existential crisis of the Balestrero family. For Manny the world outside the prison has been cropped out, but for Rose her whole life has been blotted out. Her psychiatrist says, “She’s living in another world from hours…a frightening landscape that could be on the dark side of the moon.”

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Henry Fonda had a personal connection to this material. His second wife was Frances Ford Seymour, who he married in 1936, and with whom he had two children: Peter and Jane. Frances suffered from severe depression, and took her own life at the age of 42, in 1950. Fonda biographer Devin McKinney reads the film as a “transfer of anxiety from himself [Manny's] to his wife. The film’s ‘personal’ element passes from Hitchcock to Fonda, our focus from the director’s passive observation to the character’s encounter with his wife’s depression.” Hitchcock wasn’t happy with this transition, telling Francois Truffaut that “The first weakness was the long interruption in the man’s story in order to show how the wife was gradually losing her mind.” But this transition is one of the film’s great artistic strengths, the terror not isolated or controllable in Manny but spreading outward. Rose starts laughing when all of Manny’s alibis turn up dead, their lives turned into a cosmic joke. She soon shuts down emotionally, convinced the world is conspiring against her family. The terrifying part is that there is no conspiracy, it is simply an average everyday mistake that has evacuated meaning from her life. There is nothing left to believe in, so she disappears inside herself. The pain on Fonda’s face flickers with recognition.

14 Responses Accused: The Wrong Man (1957)
Posted By Barry Lane : February 9, 2016 3:48 pm

Just a detail, but it matters. Henry Fonda was the father of Peter and Jane, not Henry Ford.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : February 9, 2016 3:49 pm

I am clearly losing my mind. Thank you for catching that.

Posted By Barry Lane : February 9, 2016 3:50 pm

You are not at all losing your mind. Good article. Thanks.

Posted By swac44 : February 9, 2016 4:10 pm

Glad I got to see this early on in my appreciation of Hitchcock’s work, when a local rep cinema screened a series of “underrated Hitchcocks” shown in 16mm in the mid-’80s. I caught The Wrong Man on a double feature with The Paradine Case. The film with Fonda left a strong impression, while the latter did not (and a subsequent viewing of Paradine hasn’t improved its standing with me). It was a great series though, with titles like I Confess, Rich & Strange and Under Capricorn part of the week-long assortment, plus some pre-film remarks by local film experts to advise the viewers what to look for in each entry.

Cut to last week, and I got to see clips of The Wrong Man again on a big screen, this time as part of the Truffaut/Hitchcock documentary (and shortly after watching a blu-ray of another of his “wrong man” titles, Frenzy) and I learned even more about it. Now I just need to give it another viewing to see how it all comes together. Maybe I’ll even give Paradine another chance as well.

Posted By Mitch Farish : February 9, 2016 4:23 pm

Paradine should have been great, but the Selznick studio went against the director in casting Louis Jourdan instead of Robert Newton, and they butchered it in editing. Character development and motivations were changed from Hitchcock’s concept.

Posted By Autist : February 9, 2016 5:21 pm

I’ve always liked The Paradine Case and think Gregory Peck is very good in it. The Wrong Man is a highly under-rated movie: if anyone else had made it other than Hitchcock, it would be an acknowledged masterpiece, but it gets overshadowed by his other masterpieces. It’s a shame.

Posted By Ben Martin : February 9, 2016 6:41 pm

THE WRONG MAN knocks me out and as with so many of his movies makes me want to somehow give Hitchcock a hug. It’s detractors at the time of it’s release seem to blame Hitchcock for not delivering a typically Hitchcockian film – but I say it demonstrates the master taking the right approach for the topic at hand and knocking it out of the park. (I’ve theorized that it inspired Richard Brooks in his handling of IN COLD BLOOD, an admired film that I find to be fine but slightly inferior to Hitchcock’s similarly handled faux-doc approach.) If Jules Dassin or Robert Aldrich had directed the exact same film, I think it might have gotten more respect at the time of it’s release. But who knows. At least it’s getting it’s respect now . Thanks.

Posted By robbushblog : February 9, 2016 7:21 pm

I like this one quite a bit. It’s my nephew’s favorite Hitchcock because it stars his favorite actor. I’ve had it on DVD for many years.

I like THE PARADINE CASE just fine. I’m not sure why it gets such a bad rap.

Posted By Jeffrey E. Ford : February 10, 2016 6:41 am

Here’s another voice who thinks THE PARADINE CASE is greatly under-rated. Certainly not perfect, but a lot of it does seem to be like a trial run for a lot of the “obsession” motifs that Hitch would perfect in VERTIGO. And I’ve always found it amusing that when the book “The Art of Alfred Hitchcock” (I can’t remember the author’s name) was published in a new edition several years ago, the one entry that was completely re-written by the author was the one on PARADINE: the first time around, he was cool to it, the second time he said something like: “it was the director’s film most in need of a re-assessment and fresh appreciation, because if one accepts THE PARADINE CASE on its own terms, it rewards richly.” I’ve always agreed with that view. I haven’t seen THE WRONG MAN in a long time, but I think it just got put on my to-do list. Thanks for writing about it.

Posted By Juana Maria : February 11, 2016 3:13 am

I have seen this film on TCM of course. Have you noticed that Werner Klemperper (or Col. Klink) is in this film? That’s probably the only thing I enjoyed about this film. The acting was superb, nevertheless the fact that it is based on a true story and Vera Miles’ character coming unhinged always bothered me. She made it all through “Psycho”(1960) and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, this was too much. At least for me. If anyone ever pays attention to my ramblings on this blog, I prefer Westerns, which is what I am usually watching. Henry Fonda and Vera Miles starred in some wonderful Westerns.

Posted By Ben Martin : February 11, 2016 3:43 pm

I always thought it was a huge credit to Ms. Miles that she could be as thoroughly convincing as the strong, confident Lila Crane as she could the mousy, vulnerable Rose Balestrero. Amazing beauty AND talent.

Posted By ike ilkiw : February 17, 2016 7:53 pm

“The movie strives for “reality”, and much of it plays as a heightened kind of docudrama, focused through Balestrero’s POV as he is arrested, processed, and put to trial. “…including the police precinct. If you visit, the interior of the precinct today it is almost entirely unchanged since the movie was filmed there. Also, there is a scene where he is going to a bank, near the Jackson Heights/Roosevelt train station, also, except for some small changes, is just as it was in the movie.

Posted By Juana Maria : February 27, 2016 7:50 pm

Nobody noticed Col. Klink, huh? Oh well, the other actors did a superb job too.

Posted By Kerry Carnohan : July 15, 2016 4:47 pm

Listen to the opening two chords of the theme for A Streetcar Named Desire & The Wrong Man — sounds as if Herrmann borrowed from Alex North…

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