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M. Leary

The Wrong Man

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Link to Film Club thread.

The Wrong Man is an insane film. I think it, along with a few others on this board IIRC, a sorely overlooked Hitchcock. Spoilers ahead...

It remains for me one of the most terrifying of Hitchcock's films, rivaling The Birds as a surrealist, almost apocalyptic parable of our condition. (Which for Hitchcock was this sort of well-documented post-War anxiety. All of his films take place under the specter of the atomic age, which Hitchcock is able to invoke without actually having to show any nuclear devices or explosion.) I feel a dread while watching The Wrong Man that is identical to what I used to feel while reading Kafka, or Camus, or Borges. It is so clearly about possibility that all our structures and norms and carefully manicured security mechanisms could collapse at any moment. One error of interpretation by someone else could render us utterly powerless. 

The film is really postmodern in this sense. Manny is convicted entirely through mechanisms of interpretation. His handwriting mistake creates a tragic surplus of meaning. Even in the line-up, he is simply most like the man who robbed their office. Given this power of interpretation, and the additional psychological distance by turning Manny into a mere number, they become emblematic of what Milgram famously called the "agentic state" - which is that moral distance created by bureaucracies and people's moral decisions. We feel okay condemning people when someone else is telling us to do it. Milgram adduced this behavioral principle to explain the Holocaust, but it is of no small coincidence that it comes up again and again in Hitchcock's work. Our standards of judgment have become diffuse, a web of bureaucratic decisions belonging to a language game only a professional caste can speak.

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Going a bit further back into the postmodern, all these scenes in The Wrong Man could be cribbed directly from Kafka's The Castle. Such as the phone call through which they discover Manny is going to court the next morning. "Where is the court?" they ask. Someone says: "We don't know. We will have to find out..." How terrifying is it that Manny's reason for judgment is unknown to them. But so is its place! The essence of horror is complete moral, psychic, and spatial destabilization. All three elements are present in this scene.

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Fonda's performance is also insane. Much of the film is near avant-garde in this respect, especially the sequences through which Manny visits the robbed stores so that he can be identified by the proprietors. Again and again Hitchcock gets this shot of Manny walking, and then looking back over his shoulder toward us. The look on his face is of utter despair, the face of Munch's Anxiety. And it is typically lit pretty harshly, to enhance its skeletal feel. In each of these scenes, especially the liquor store, Manny passes through an intense depth of focus, which also enhances his isolation in the frame. he projects this feeling of being alone. Hitchcock edits between Manny walking, and looking back, and each shopkeeper's gaze. Like he is in a zoo, on display.

He becomes successively stripped of humanity until the last passage through the drugstore, and this is made explicit. Manny is just a thing to be observed, whereas the police officer is a "Sir" and the customer is a "person." It is as if Manny has been finally bracketed out as a different form of humanity.

There is also a brilliant technical shot toward the middle, when Manny is locked into his cell. The camera zooms to the square window in the door, and then continues to zoom right through it, as the square window matches the aspect ratio of the film frame (what Godard called a "CinemaScope-shaped spy-hole"). We pass from a scene of Manny being locked into a cell, into the experience of being locked into a cell with Manny. 

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Their only alibi witnesses are dead. And they have to travel, seek these men out, only to discover that they are already gone. So macabre.

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And thematically, a lot of these feelings of doom come full circle in a really surreal way. The end of the film seems to suggest that this second man they have caught may not be the right man. The system has simply locked onto him through the same process of identification. As will become common in later Hitchcock, we have a doubling that happens at the very end of The Wrong Man. Manny has had this terrible experience, but then encounters a doppleganger that will/may also be having the identical experience. Rather than being granted a feeling of empathy through this shared experience, this doubling just geometrically increases the sense of Manny's own doom. (Which is precisely the same mechanism that explains his wife's collapse. The experience does not bind them closer together as man and wife. Rather, in this encounter with absurd injustice, she encounters her own guilt, and the tangled web of shame mechanisms that have come to replace any actual sense of justice.)

The end of the film suggests: We are all totally screwed. We are all the wrong man. Who will save us?

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I still puzzle over the story arc of his wife, and the frequent appearance of the rosary. The latter is a curiously rare reference to religion in Hitchcock. Coupled with a pretty explicit moment of prayer before an icon in their home, there is an undercurrent of religious anxiety here that I find pretty fascinating. 

Edited by M. Leary

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A link to Godard's epic review of The Wrong Man, in which is critical chops are on full display:

"Balestrero leans wearily against the wall, as though drunk with shame. He shuts his eyes firmly, trying for a second to pull himself together. Framing him in medium shot, the camera begins to describe increasingly rapid circles round him in an axis perpendicular to the wall against which he is leaning. This gyratory movements serves as a transition to the following shot, which shows Balestrero being brought into court the following morning to determine according to the American custom, whether he will b e sent to trial or not.

As so often, it is in these transitions that Hitchcock analyses feelings and subjective impressions too insignificant to find their way into an important scene. Through this camera movement he manages to express a purely physical trait: the contraction of the eyelids as Fonda closes them, the force with which they press on the eyeballs for a fraction of a second, creating in the sensory imagination a vertiginous kaleidoscope of abstractions which only an equally extravagant camera movement could evoke successfully. A film comprising only such notations would be nothing; but one in which they are thrown into the bargain – that film is everything."

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M. Leary wrote:
: Manny has had this terrible experience, but then encounters a doppleganger that will/may also be having the identical experience. Rather than being granted a feeling of empathy through this shared experience, this doubling just geometrically increases the sense of Manny's own doom.

Care to elaborate? My recollection is that Manny is exonerated *and* he personally confronts the doppelganger and blames the doppelganger for putting himself and his wife through all their agony. So, yes, Manny does not respond empathetically -- he does not ask himself "is this man being falsely accused just as I was?" -- but I don't think Manny is aware of any increased doom on his part. Instead, he becomes part of the mechanism that dooms the other fellow.

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FWIW, a few months ago I wrote about The Wrong Man and I Confess, which Glenn Kenny (just a couple of days earlier!) had identified as the "least fun (or 'fun')" films in Hitchcock's oeuvre (the scare quotes suggesting that maybe "fun" isn't the only important criterion), and which I called Hitchcock's two most explicitly Catholic films

On 6/3/2016 at 11:30 AM, M. Leary said:

The film is really postmodern in this sense. Manny is convicted entirely through mechanisms of interpretation. His handwriting mistake creates a tragic surplus of meaning. Even in the line-up, he is simply most like the man who robbed their office. Given this power of interpretation, and the additional psychological distance by turning Manny into a mere number, they become emblematic of what Milgram famously called the "agentic state" - which is that moral distance created by bureaucracies and people's moral decisions. We feel okay condemning people when someone else is telling us to do it. Milgram adduced this behavioral principle to explain the Holocaust, but it is of no small coincidence that it comes up again and again in Hitchcock's work. Our standards of judgment have become diffuse, a web of bureaucratic decisions belonging to a language game only a professional caste can speak.

The end of the film suggests: We are all totally screwed. We are all the wrong man. Who will save us?

This is somewhat implicit in the whole "innocent man wrongly accused" theme, but it certainly is most explicit in The Wrong Man. Of this theme in The Wrong Man and I Confess I wrote: 

Neither protagonist’s secret is criminal, but their common vulnerability suggests that all of us are either guilty of something in our lives, or at least lead lives that aren’t quite as presentable to the glare of public scrutiny as we might like to think. We are all potentially vulnerable to the kind of false suspicion and accusation that falls on Father Logan and Manny, in part because of the choices and the secrets we all live with.

This vulnerability to scrutiny is cinematically suggested in both films in a signature shot in which a character slowly peers with one eye emerging around another character’s head, spying at a distance on the protagonist, who is unaware that he is being observed or is suspected of anything. (This key shot is almost the only hint in either film of a third of Hitchcock’s defining obsessions: voyeurism and the implication of the audience in a character’s guilty gaze.)

FWIW, Spielberg borrows this shot in Jaws, but not its meaning: When Chief Brody peers around someone's head in the beach scene, it isn't to raise the disquieting issues around either being the object of someone else's surreptitious scrutiny or being the surreptitious scrutinizer of another; rather, it simply evokes the tension of being distracted from the person talking to us by a more pressing concern.  

Quote

I still puzzle over the story arc of his wife, and the frequent appearance of the rosary. The latter is a curiously rare reference to religion in Hitchcock. Coupled with a pretty explicit moment of prayer before an icon in their home, there is an undercurrent of religious anxiety here that I find pretty fascinating. 

Anxiety, yes, but also the clearest affirmation of religious hope, in the form of answered prayer: 

Then, coming face-to-face with a Sacred Heart image of Jesus hanging on his wall, Manny begins to pray — and, as he does, the image fades into a prolonged double exposure in which a shadowy figure emerges from the distance until his face is superimposed on Henry Fonda’s praying face, highlighting their strong resemblance. What happens immediately afterward is clearly the answer to Manny’s prayer.

It’s a brilliant shot — a shot that is not only the key to The Wrong Man, but one that, more clearly than any other in any Hitchcock film I’ve seen, reveals the religious sensibility and moral ideas at work in all his films. 

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On 6/7/2016 at 1:55 PM, Peter T Chattaway said:

M. Leary wrote:
: Manny has had this terrible experience, but then encounters a doppleganger that will/may also be having the identical experience. Rather than being granted a feeling of empathy through this shared experience, this doubling just geometrically increases the sense of Manny's own doom.

Care to elaborate? My recollection is that Manny is exonerated *and* he personally confronts the doppelganger and blames the doppelganger for putting himself and his wife through all their agony. So, yes, Manny does not respond empathetically -- he does not ask himself "is this man being falsely accused just as I was?" -- but I don't think Manny is aware of any increased doom on his part. Instead, he becomes part of the mechanism that dooms the other fellow.

I don't think Manny asks this, or is aware of it.

I think the audience, however, is (or should be?). There are a lot of spots in Hitchcock's films where the audience is more aware than the film's characters. It really fits Hitchcock's placement as a cultural arbiter of psychoanalysis and the idea emerging in the 40s-60s that human behavior is subject to subconscious forces only perceivable by a professional class of therapists. So admittedly, I tend to interpret Hitchcock's films by presupposing that he is a reliable narrator hinting at what is really taking place in these stories.

We get to the end of the film expecting to share Manny's feeling of absolution - but receive the opposite instead. I am not sure if I would go so far as to call this a bait-and-switch on Hitchcock's part, but it gets close.

On 6/11/2016 at 3:06 PM, SDG said:

 

Anxiety, yes, but also the clearest affirmation of religious hope, in the form of answered prayer: 

Then, coming face-to-face with a Sacred Heart image of Jesus hanging on his wall, Manny begins to pray — and, as he does, the image fades into a prolonged double exposure in which a shadowy figure emerges from the distance until his face is superimposed on Henry Fonda’s praying face, highlighting their strong resemblance. What happens immediately afterward is clearly the answer to Manny’s prayer.

It’s a brilliant shot — a shot that is not only the key to The Wrong Man, but one that, more clearly than any other in any Hitchcock film I’ve seen, reveals the religious sensibility and moral ideas at work in all his films. 

I had seen this piece but have abstained until watching I Confess. I need to chew on this scene a bit more, as it is so singular for Hitchcock. Given the way you describe it, I still wonder if the way the images overlap suggests the idea that Manny's prayer is really a psychological crutch, in that he is really just talking to himself? This is a common skeptical description of prayer. 

To quote Fox: I want to believe...

So what else in The Wrong Man suggests Hitchcock is exploring the mystery of prayer here? 

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