Are you sure you’re innocent? Don’t let Hitchcock decide.
The Wrong Man (1956) is one of Hitchcock’s most underrated classics, showing that innocence and guilt are merely tricks of the mind. The tension in this movie is palpable. There’s no denying that. Henry Fonda plays an innocent man, accused by a host of witnesses of being a bank robber. His guilt becomes an oncoming train, there are so many witnesses. Some of them are respectable ladies and intelligent-looking people, all of whom claim he is the robber. We know he isn’t. He’s the wrong man.
Unlike in 12 Angry Men, Fonda doesn’t look all that confident. Look at the above picture. He stares off like that many times during the movie, his posture rigid and tense. He looks tense and worried during his trial.
Fonda doesn’t ever raise his voice or get excited, but does come close. I’m not sure I would react the same way if I were accused of a series of robberies and an assault. I think Fonda portrays his character with the cracks of a normal person, but it’s refreshing to see a movie exclude the melodrama in favor of mood, like the way the camera catches people looking at Fonda, thinking he’s guilty.
In one scene, the police force Fonda to walk through a store to get the clerk to look at him for identification purposes. It’s humiliating. I could swear I could see Fonda sweat. He doesn’t say anything as he walks to the back of the store, but I can imagine how he must have felt. He takes a walk back toward the door, and the tension makes the scene feel like a death march. The police already suspect him. The way the witnesses squint at him makes the whole thing a farce and a formality, as guilt is assumed right from the start. Fonda plays the wrong man perfectly.
Another scene struck me, and this one could be better than the last, but it’s close. In a scene with his wife, Fonda talks to her about what is going to happen and she becomes afraid, descending slowly into hysterics. She begins the scene sitting across from her husband, but by the end, she is standing over him in fear and paranoia, doubting her own beliefs and sanity. Does she doubt him too? Maybe so. She concludes that there is nothing to be done anymore, because they’re trapped. She suggests they lock themselves up in the house, which probably symbolizes her confined feelings. She’s trapped. Society has already proclaimed judgment and it’s sad that she doesn’t have the strength to resist them.
The perpetuation of Fonda’s guilt is not so far-fetched. The plot’s details are great, without being too overdone with police procedure. His alibi is destroyed early in the movie, to help the tension and keep the audience from feeling comfortable. I like the actors who play the police officers in this movie. They’re not too over-the-top, but they have just the right amount of sanctimonious accusation to make it all work. They try to convince Fonda to change his story, but he won’t have any of it. Good for him.
Overall, this is a great movie. It’s well-made. The mood, the characters, and the pace are just perfect. Fonda made 12 Angry Men the following year, and I think he’s a cool customer in that movie by comparison. I have to complement Hitchcock, because he plays fair with the audience in this movie. There’s no silly twists or hidden motivations. The suspense stems from the dread of what is going to happen, which is why a mis-trial works so well as a plot device, to feed us even more dread. I will not reveal the ending to this movie, but it works very well as a literal grinder of character development. The crime lingers with Fonda’s character and his wife for most of the movie, and it plays it like a phantom looking to overwhelm them. This one is worth finding on DVD.