Monday, February 1, 2016

THE WRONG MAN: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1954) Warner Archive

In hindsight, Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial career entered a fallow period after he parted company with producer, David O. Selznick in 1947. Say what you will, but creatively speaking, Hitchcock and Selznick were a marriage made in heaven. That neither came to enjoy this short-lived union as creative equals was their own affair. But to state as much in no way negates the multitude of treasures Hitchcock thus far bestowed on the movie-going public, nor does it discount the as yet spellbinding array of movies soon to follow. However, Hitchcock’s move away to be ‘his own man’ at Warner Bros. produced an uneven interim; begun with his second experimental ‘one set piece ‘pet project, Rope (1948 – the first, 1947’s Lifeboat) and culminating with his classiest affair yet, Dial M for Murder (1954). Right in the middle, there was Strangers on a Train (1951) – an unimpeachable highlight; suffered for first by an unmitigated flop, Under Capricorn (1949), and a fairly flawed minor glamor puff piece, Stage Fright (1950). The stalemate ostensibly ended with Hitchcock’s most personal film to date; the sadly underrated, I Confess (1953). But a move to Paramount recharged Hitchcock’s batteries, the artistic freedom he would enjoy there, allowing him a second irrefutable ‘golden age’, kick-started by 1954’ Rear Window.
Unhappily, Hitchcock’s last film to satisfy contractual obligations at Warner Bros. – The Wrong Man (1956) – while delving into many of the master’s signature themes – veered wildly off the mark in virtually all aspects; much too far from the Hitchcock ‘formula’ (if, indeed ‘formula’ can be accurately applied to typify the director’s visual prowess).  In hindsight, The Wrong Man remains a restlessly dull and awkward movie to get through. With due respect paid to Hitchcock, for both his verve and cheek to at least ‘try’ something new, The Wrong Man is an unquestionably self-important event; Hitchcock’s embrace of the unvarnished ‘documentarian’ look to tell his true story somehow at odds with his inability to cast the film accordingly with virtual unknowns. It is the stylistic clash between truth and fiction from which The Wrong Man’s convictions as cinema art never fully materialize.
The gravest misfire is the casting of Henry Fonda to portray this wronged man, bass-fiddle Stork nightclub entertainer, Christopher Emanuel Balestrero – better known to his friends as ‘Manny’. Fonda, an undisputed fine actor, can no more play the Italian-born Balestrero than Chuck Heston was capable in pulling off a Hispanic detective in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). At least, Fonda assuages the pitfall of applying heavy shoe polish to his face and hair to affect the part. But the disconnect is painfully on view in the supporting cast; the olive-skinned Esther Minciotti to play Manny’s mama, and, Nehemiah Persoff and Lola D'Annunzio as his brother-in-law, Gene Conforti, and, Manny’s sister/Gene’s wife, Olga. The part of Manny’s button-down Suzy Cream-Cheese goes to Vera Miles – a fav, gleaned from the same ‘cool blonde’ mold previously held, but then vacated by Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly - until Miles became pregnant and had to bow out of Hitchcock’s plans to build her into a big star in Vertigo (1958); a miscalculation for which the master of suspense never quite forgave his leading lady.
From top to bottom The Wrong Man is decidedly, and deliberately understated; Hitchcock opening the picture with an unexpected prologue; forgoing his usual ‘cameo’ to appear in shadow and explain to the audience what they are about to witness is the whole truth and nothing but. Too bad, Hitchcock’s faux-documentary style deprives the average popcorn muncher of that necessary base-level expectation for a good piece of macabre suspense. In point of fact, The Wrong Man has none of this, beyond Hitchcock’s ability to inflict a minor pervading dread. This lingers like an ill omen or bad cloud with an almost interminable ennui, not only in Hitchcock’s staging of the drama, but oddly enough, in Henry Fonda’s decidedly ineffectual central performance.  Almost from the moment we first meet our hero it becomes difficult, if not altogether impossible, to warm to Fonda’s incarnation of Manny Balestrero; Fonda somehow aloof and not terribly inquisitive in his acting. It isn’t a lack of theatricality that suffers; rather Fonda’s strangely unsettled inability to relate – either to the other characters or – more importantly, to Hitchcock’s camera. Instead, Fonda is prone to chronically wounded glances of disbelief; his shoulders, sloped and heavy when sheathed in his trench; loose and rickety otherwise, his entire demeanor quite unable to bear the brunt of Manny’s predicament. In hindsight, there is a very good reason why Cary Grant and James Stewart are today both regarded as the quintessential Hitchcock wrong man accused – chiefly because they look and behave like stars. Stewart’s built-in persona as Hollywood’s favorite go-to every man might have done something better – or even more – with The Wrong Man. But Fonda, whose career was built on such ‘authentic’ figures, imbued with an innate sense of moral decency, is queerly working much too hard to convince us he is the reincarnation of this common fellow.
Such satisfaction, at least for the audience, is never achieved; Fonda is as Fonda was, and not even entirely playing to type - or certain of his character’s motivations, although, as Hitchcock once glibly suggested, any actors’ ‘motivations’ ought to be chiefly centered on earning a pay check. Fonda’s portrayal is devastatingly subpar. He does, however, distinguish himself in one particular – if minor – moment; a sincere and tender exchange between Manny and his elder son (Kippy Campbell) after being newly sprung from jail – a sort of dressed down ‘Andy Hardy’ man to man quality pervading their exchange of devotion. The real standout performance therefore belongs to sexy Vera Miles as Manny’s beloved Rose, thrown into a temporary state of catatonia from which, so the epilogue relates, the real Mrs. Balestrero emerged two long years after her husband’s acquittal, and not first without being heavily medicated and institutionalized. Miles ought to have been a bigger star in the cinema firmament. We get flashes of her depth herein; paralytic silences and blank stares that speak volumes – bottomless, in their terrorizing and dark premonitions, revealing a mental incapacity in Rose to reconcile her devotion to husband and family with this residual angst from some very severe Catholic guilt. It is a deliciously tragic performance.
The Wrong Man decidedly lacks the visual savoir faire of any Hitchcock picture before or since – certainly, none of his A-list efforts from the fifties; not even successfully to mimic the starkness of stylized B&W Hitchcock would later exploit to perfection in Psycho (1960). Again, this is a deliberate decision conjointly achieved at Hitchcock’s behest by long-time collaborator/cinematographer, Robert Burks, and, augmented by Bernard Herrmann’s unusually sparse underscore. Yet, Hitchcock seems to have mislaid a cardinal rule about making movies in general – and making them as the immortal Hitchcock especially; that reality and fantasy are very strange and not altogether pleasing bedfellows. The Wrong Man is visually grittier but it never goes all the way in its documentarian appeal; Hitchcock using at least some of the New York locations to good effect. Originally the intention was to shoot the entire picture in New York. Alas, economy and prudence recalled cast and crew back to Burbank for most of the seamlessly recreated interiors.
But there is a great deal to be said for Hollywood actors of a certain generation and the gently concocted artifice in making movies on a soundstage and backlot. In viewing Henry Fonda as the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ on location in The Wrong Man, one can no more effectively conjure – much less accept – his presence wandering aimlessly through the shabby back alleys and skulking about dingy upstairs’ apartments on New York’s lower east side than suspect him of being mere flesh, awakening like the rest each dawn to brush his teeth, comb his hair, and, put on his trousers one leg at a time. At some level, Fonda’s name brings with it the unwelcome cache of a bona fide movie star – but of a different sort than either Cary Grant or James Stewart. Without question, Fonda’s drawing power – combined with Hitchcock’s ‘above the title’ name recognition ought to have been quite enough to send box office registers peeling madly around the world. Undoubtedly, The Wrong Man is not trying to appeal to the same ticket buyer as other Hitchcock movies; its’ appeal centered on telling ‘the truth’ in a truth-less art – nee, straightforward – manner. Tragically, The Wrong Man never comes together as it should – not simply as an ambitious departure from Hitchcock’s otherwise suspenseful milieu – but even as a pseudo-documentarian's chronicle.  No, it just doesn’t work – period!
After Hitchcock’s opening monologue to establish the premise for his picture – not so much a ‘movie’ as an attempt at an ‘actuality’ or slice of life - we fade in on the lavishly appointed Stork Club; Manny plucking away at his bass. In the wee hours of the morning, he packs up, stops to buy a morning paper and takes the subway home; fancifully picking horses from the racing form he never intends to bet on. Hitchcock’s fascination with what he effectively dubbed ‘pure cinema’ – or pictures without dialogue – is not very compellingly achieved herein. He gives us the lay of Manny’s unremarkable life; devoted husband to Rose and father of two generic young boys, Robert (Kippy Campbell) and Gregory (Robert Essen). Rose has waited up all night for Manny to come home…well, partly. It’s those darn wisdom teeth giving her grief again; a dentist’s consultation earlier has resulted in an estimate of $300 for the necessary surgery to alleviate Rose’s pain. What to do? Manny hits upon the idea of borrowing against his life insurance policy held at New York’s Associated Life. Rose is understandably reluctant to be thrown into debt yet again. After all, the couple has just crawled out from under another loan. But she does concur with Manny; the policy angle is the best of all possible solutions.
Ominously, this is the beginning of all their problems as one of Associated’s tellers, Miss Dennerly (Peggy Webber) mistakenly identifies Manny as the same man who previously held up the office, making off with $79. At present, she passes along her identification to two coworkers, Miss Duffield (Anna Karen) and Ann James (Doreen Lang); the latter, overplaying her hand by slipping into quiet hysterics at the very sight of Manny from across the office.  A short while later, Manny is visited outside his home by two steely-eyed police officers; pug-nosed Det. Lt. Bowers (Harold J. Stone) and nondescript, Det. Matthews (Charles Cooper).  The boys in blue are not buying Manny’s story about a wife with bad teeth and insist he accompany them to the 110th Precinct. Although Manny repeatedly asks to telephone Rose - and, as yet, is not under arrest, but merely under suspicion of the crime – he is nevertheless denied this request. It might have at least laid Rose’s mind to rest. Instead, Bowers and Matthews take Manny on a sort of unofficial ‘pub crawl’ to the various burglarized establishments – parading him in front of eye witnesses who can neither confirm nor deny he is the fellow for whom they are searching. Back at the precinct, Bowers gets Manny to reprint the stick-up note the real robber used; taken aback by the similarities in penmanship.  In short order, Manny is put in a line-up; identified by Miss James and Miss Duffield and thus arrested and charged with the crime.
At home, a frantic Rose rallies the rest of the family in support; brother-in-law, Gene learning of Manny’s predicament and vowing to post bail the next morning. In the meantime, Hitchcock revels in the police procedural; finger-printing, the line-up, the first night in jail and so on. Likely, Hitchcock’s fascination in showing us these nuts and bolts of ‘law and order’ stem from an oft’ repeated, though perhaps apocryphal story about Hitchcock’s own father asking the police to lock up his young son for five minutes to illustrate for the impressionable lad what happens to anyone who disobeys the law. I suspect, given the context, and how little was actually known by the general public back then about the machinery of justice – and its misuse – all these scenes prove revealing. And yet, they drag on…and on; interminably so, forcing Fonda into a code of silence as Hitchcock vacillates in some clever Hitchcockian visuals; the swirling camera after Manny has been locked in his cell, meant to externalize his unwieldy thoughts and mind reeling with fear and hopelessness. The problem is such bravura moments take us out of the faux documentary quality steadfast elsewhere, reminding the audience of the picture’s ‘reel’ inauthenticity. We are not watching a documentary about Manny Balestrero, but Henry Fonda pretending to be the man in a dramatization of his life.
The next day, Manny appears before a judge to face the charges. He is given bail. But the reprieve is short-lived.  Rose places her faith in attorney, Frank O'Connor (Anthony Quayle), who comes highly recommended, though openly admits he has very little experience in criminal law. O’Connor encourages the Balestreros to retrace their whereabouts on the dates when the robberies were committed. Manny and Rose are able to recall they were on vacation for the first hold-up. Returning to the upstate motel, Manny and Rose piece together their recollections of the others with whom they enjoyed their stay; a man who walked with a hunch, named LaMarca and another with bushy eyebrows called Morelli. Manny also recalls a third man who remains unidentified, but Manny seems to think of as a former boxer. Tragically, the first two leads wind up as ‘dead ends – literally; Morelli and LaMarca having passed away since.  Devastated their alibis cannot be corroborated Rose falls into a deep depression. Manny tries to shake her out of it and is assaulted with a hairbrush for his efforts. Rose’s nagging doubt, coupled with her inability to function in any capacity forces Manny to place her under a doctor’s care in an out-of-the-way asylum. 
As Manny’s life continues to crumble, the trial begins. But mid-way through this nail-biting cross-examination a bored juror suddenly makes an impromptu statement, forcing O’Connor to ask the judge to declare a mistrial. Mercifully, Manny will not have to endure a second bite at the same apple as the real robber, Daniel (Richard Robbins) launches into another hold-up, foiled by a husband and wife running a delicatessen. O’Connor telephones Manny with the good news; Manny rushing to the precinct to confront the man correctly charged with the crime. Once more he crosses paths with Miss Duffield and Ann James; the pair identifying Daniel as the real criminal, then suddenly quite ashamed to realize accusing Manny first has contributed to the derailment of an innocent man’s reputation. Manny rushes to the asylum to share his good fortune with Rose. Regrettably, his revelation does not free her mind of guilt. She remains aloof and distraught, urging Manny to go and never return. In the movie’s epilogue we learn Rose Balestrero did not emerge from the self-imposed cocoon of exile for nearly another two years; the family since moved to Florida to start their lives anew.
One of Hitchcock’s bleakest movies, The Wrong Man is far more a police procedural melodrama than either a true crime story or noir thriller, though it borrows stylistic elements from both genre and movement. But the picture suffers from an interminable amount of Hitchcock’s own flawed sense of truth-seeking solemnity; Hitchcock forgetting that even a skilled documentarian mixes up the light with the fantastic. Worse, the narrative appears to have been cobbled together in the editing process with little to zero visual finesse; chopped up, with inexplicable fade outs, inserts and/or cutaways from the action, sometimes right in the middle of dialogue scenes. Consider the sequence where Rose first confides in Manny her queerly unsettling sense of internalized blame for the predicament they now face together. Manny’s declaration in her defense, that Rose has been the best wife any man could ask for, is immediately followed by a ten second fade to the Stork Club; guests, oblivious to Manny’s plight as he plucks the strings of his bass fiddle with a blank expression written across his face; then, another overlapping fade into mid-conversation inside O’Connor’s offices where Rose and Manny are engaged in their private consultation.
Hitchcock is deliberately trying to be un-Hitchcockian in his methodical approach to this material – alright. But he lacks the subtleties of a hard-nosed photo-journalist to effectively pull off the ruse; his quest for verisimilitude mired in the turgidly dull particulars of Manny’s day to day ordeal. In his attempt to shoot an ‘actuality’ in place of a drama, Hitchcock cannot resist inserting a few bravura moments to satisfy his own sense of pure cinema; the clever tracking shot that follows Manny through the open letterbox slot of his locked jail cell; the discombobulating swirl of the camera, meant to infer Manny overwhelmed by the sudden realization all this is happening to him for real; the split image of a stunned Manny reflected, presumably, in the cracked mirror glass of Rose’s hairbrush after she has struck her husband in a fit of shellshock and disbelief in his innocence. These examples illustrate Hitchcock’s cleverness. But they almost appear out of the blue or to have been excised from another picture entirely; bookended by interminable bouts of pedestrian movie-making; the connective tissue between them lacking except in the most base continuity.  To state as much of any movie is clumsy business at best. For a Hitchcock effort, it remains inexcusable. In the final analysis, The Wrong Man was, is, and remains a wrong turn in Hitchcock’s impeccable career.
I have yet to warm to the new Warner Archive Blu-ray. For starters, the movie’s grain structure is inconsistently rendered. Hitchcock intended The Wrong Man to have a ‘newsreel’ quality to it. My issue herein is certainly not with the thick patina of grain. But the image ‘quality’ toggles back and forth – not even from scene to scene, but rather cut to cut - from greatly smoothed out and ‘acceptable’ levels of film grain, to a pattern so densely thick it all but breaks apart fine details and threatens to completely take the viewer out of the story. Fine details are mostly satisfying, although the entire image has a rather stark – natural – contrast. I detected some residual softness in certain scenes, with fine details suffering accordingly.  This is so obviously a new telecine transfer achieved by rescanning the fine grain master positive at 2k. And although substantial cleanup has removed the more obvious scratches and dirt, not all of the age-related imperfections have been eradicated. Some scenes actually look quite ‘messy’ – nee, dirty.
As stated earlier, Hitchcock and his cinematographer, Robert Burks were going for the documentarian feel. As such, I believe the oft bumped to marginally blown-out contrast achieved herein was deliberate and is, in fact, well-preserved by Warner’s efforts on this disc. Better still, The Wrong Man's original mono soundtrack is featured in pristine 2.0 DTS mono that is very impressive. Extras are limited to the same ‘making of’ produced some years ago for the DVD release and a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: The Wrong Man wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m not particularly crazy about the way it looks in hi-def either. I suppose I would have preferred WAC to homogenize the grain structure – not by blurring it, hiding it, or ‘cleaning’ it up to the point where everything became waxen, flat and pasty gray either. But the grain is so heavy at times it clearly distracts rather than augmenting this B&W presentation. Sorry folks; I’ll have to say, pass on this one and be very glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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