03 June 2011

All Kinds of Wrong.

My family has, for some reason, been watching piles of black-and-white movies lately. Last night, we finished off The Longest Day, which we'd started the day before (the irony isn't lost on me); before that, we watched Across the Pacific, a lesser-known Humphrey Bogart film which was... confusing, at best. However, the other night, we watched The Wrong Man.

On the surface, The Wrong Man seems like all kinds of right:  It's Hitchcock; it's '53; it's Henry Fonda and Vera Miles. What could possibly mess this up?

Well, actually, absolutely nothing. The film is technically wonderful, both in the mechanics of its storytelling and in its cinematography, to say nothing of its outstanding performances. It really is a great film; why it's not as well known as Rear Window or, indeed, Psycho -- to which it ends up bearing a hell of a lot closer resemblance -- is anyone's guess, as far as I'm concerned.

The story is that of Manny, an Italian-American musician who plays stand-up bass at a club. Manny (Fonda) has a beautiful, sweet wife (Miles) and two energetic sons, as well as a close-knit extended family (because all Italians have close-knit extended families, right?). Obviously, this doesn't last very long:  Manny is picked up for holding up a number of local stores and an insurance agency, and, due to his apparent resemblance to the criminal, is briefly arrested and put on trial. He is released on bail, and attempts to build a case with the help of a lawyer and a number of people with whom he'd been in contact over the period of time in which the hold-ups took place.

However, Manny and his wife soon discover, to their understandable consternation, that almost everyone they'd encountered at a critical time has died. And it is this coincidence that causes Manny's wife to start to lose it. She stops sleeping, blames herself for everything, and eventually hits Manny with a silver-backed hairbrush. She is institutionalized, and it seems like this story is going to take a turn for the truly messed up.

This doesn't happen. If I may be permitted a spoiler, the cops catch the actual criminal and Manny is acquitted. There was no conspiracy, no malice on the part of the officials, nothing -- just a mistaken identity. But Manny is obviously deeply unsettled by this, and his wife remains in the institution. (We are informed by a title screen before the end credits that, two years later, she was released, "completely cured," and that the family relocated to Florida. Uh... yeah.)

The thing that makes the story so unsettling is its very smallness. Unlike many of Hitchcock's other films, no one has died, there is no conspiracy, there is no real villain (unless you count the real criminal, who has about five minutes' screen time and is pretty much completely undeveloped). And yet, through the careful attention Hitchcock pays to every moment of this story, it becomes epic -- a family's struggles against and through the system that should have prevented this situation in the first place. Indeed, the observation is so close it becomes first claustrophobic, then horrific:  The scene in which Manny's wife's madness is first indicated is one of the most terrifying instances of body horror I've seen or read of in ages, and all her clothes are on and all her limbs are where they're supposed to be. It's only Hitchcock's genius for telling details, coupled with an unusual shot angle and frame, that lend a small gesture this air of real horror.

Basically, The Wrong Man is a great film. Truly, truly great. I recommend that y'all go an look for it. Now!

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