In its recent presentation of “The Wrong Man” Turner Classic Movies reminded the viewer that being trapped in a Kafkaesque scenario is a nightmare neither limited by time nor date. It is ever present in a world of prosecutorial abuse as many January 6 defendants have found out.
“The Wrong Man is a 1956 American docudrama film noir directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Henry Fonda and Vera Miles. The film was drawn from the true story of an innocent man charged with a crime, as described in the book The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero by Maxwell Anderson and in the magazine article “A Case of Identity”, which was published in Life magazine in June 1953 by Herbert Brean.”
—-from Wiki (film recently shown on TCM)
It is New York, 1953, Manny Balestrero (Fonda) is a bassist who plays in a quintet at the Stork Club, “the” posh night spot where the “In” crowd goes to see and be seen. If you’re at the Stork Club, you are definitely “in”. His wife Rose (Miles) is an ordinary housewife with two little boys to look after. Manny works odd hours, but theirs is a normal, unexciting household, that is until Manny is mistaken for a stick-up artist robbing local businesses.
The film opens at evening’s end. Fonda finishes his last set, heads for the subway, stops for coffee, looks at the racing form in the back of the NY Daily News (called Daily Press in the film, but same layout) then heads home. When I saw Fonda getting off the “El” (the “elevated” portion of the NYC transit system) I figured Queens or Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, the Italian section. When I saw his house, I knew it was Queens by its style. Manny’s $85 weekly pay would be $955 now or close to $50,000 annually, the average salary in 2023 NYC. With a house, a wife, and two kids it could be tight, but prices were stable in the fifties, and lower. My mother went back to work in ’56 for $60 per week and dreamed of making $100. Times were different.
The secondary players were interesting with Werner Klemperer (later Col Klink on “Hogan’s Heroes”) as Rose’s shrink as she descends into madness and is institutionalized from the stress of her husband’s arrest for armed robbery. Anthony Quayle as Frank O’Connor for the defense was an interesting choice as Quayle is British but handled the accent, with a touch of an Irish lilt perfectly. The real O’Connor was quite a political figure in New York Democratic Party politics serving as a state senator and Queens County District Attorney. I got a kick out of the “El” rumbling by O’Connor’s office as he is interviewing Manny and Rose, I remember how noisy it was, you couldn’t hear yourself think.
Police investigative practices have certainly changed. What the cops in the film do wouldn’t be tolerated today. The Miranda warning didn’t exist, and taking the suspect to the locations so victims could identify him, and the handwriting test would be excluded on grounds of self-incrimination. Likewise, the sloppy line up would violate procedure. In today’s world a handwriting expert would be hired to authenticate the criminal and Manny’s handwriting. While there might be similarities no two styles are exactly alike unless one is an expert forger, not the case here. The fact that the accused was nowhere near the scene of the crimes should have created doubt, and gotten the case thrown out on its face, instead, because of a witness’ flubbed testimony, O’Connor only was able to get a mistrial. In the meantime, the real criminal, with whom there is a resemblance (judging from actual photos) was caught during a hold-up. Although the nightmare ends, the lives of Manny and Rose are shattered, the pieces are picked up, repaired, but the cracks will always show. Rose, eventually released from the mental hospital, will never fully recovers from the ordeal.
What the film exposes is how the detectives mind set can exclude evidence and how eye witnesses can be mistaken. The lessons of “The Wrong Man” are applicable today when one recalls the “Norfolk Five”, and the Duke Lacrosse cases in each of which witness testimony was unreliable and the prosecution suppressed exculpatory evidence. There is also a connection to the January 6 riot where innocent Americans who strolled into the Capitol, let in by the Capitol Police, were arrested and absurdly charged with improbable crimes. In “The Wrong Man” the cops and prosecutor were mistaken but honest, in the latter cases they were mistaken and malicious, wanting scalps more than justice.
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