Manny, one of Hitchcock's Innocent Many
Alfred Hitchcock frequently employed the theme of an innocent man accused of a crime he didn't commit often to great effect in his thrillers yet probably his best exploration of the theme came in a non-typical Hitchcock movie. That movie is "The Wrong Man" which is based on the true story of a musician accused of a series of robberies and whilst as thrilling as any of Hitchcock's movies it isn't manufactured thrills. This movie has a frightening reality to it as we watch this innocent man assist the police as he has nothing to hide and end up being swallowed up by a system which says he is guilty whilst at the same time we see how it affects his family especially his wife who begins to blame herself. In fact I would go as far as saying as "The Wrong Man" is one of Hitchcock's greatest movies because it is the power of the story, the atmospheric direction and camera work and a pair of top performances from Henry Fonda and Vera Miles which makes it spellbinding.
Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda - Mister Roberts) is an easy going chap; he plays in the band at The Stork Club and is a devoted family man who despite financial difficulties makes ends meet. With his wife Rose (Vera Miles - 23 Paces to Baker Street) needing expensive dental surgery he heads to the Insurance Company to see if he can borrow off the policy but the clerks recognize him and before he knows it he has been picked up by police who question him over a series of robberies. Despite being as helpful as he can everything he says ends up working against him especially as others identify him as the robber and before he knows it he is being arrested for these crimes. Not only does this make Manny feel helpless but also affects Rose as she falls into depression, blaming herself for Manny's predicament until she ends up having to be committed to hospital.
So the simple thing to say is that "The Wrong Man" is in many ways one of Hitchcock's most scary and thrilling movies because it is real. It imbues into us a fear that this could happen to us as we watch Manny swallowed up in a system where he finds himself accused of these crimes and despite being helpful finds himself the victim of his own helpfulness, ending up feeling helpless. At the same time it also imbues into us another level of fear as we see how it affects his loved ones none more so than Rose who starts to blame herself for what has happened leading to a frightening mental decline as paranoia takes hold. It is the simple fact that none of this is dressed up with any major false entertainment which makes it work and makes us want to watch to see what happens, not in the sense of whether Manny will get off but how far it will effect him and his family.
What is interesting is that because this is such a real movie, based on a true story Hitchcock keeps things very simple starting by dropping his usual walk on cameo which he actually filmed and replacing it with an introduction. I say simple but that doesn't mean any less effective and the combination of some great camera angles and use of black & white makes for an incredibly atmospheric movie. Hitchcock does a brilliant job of getting across the sense of helplessness which Manny feels and how he is shepherded through a system which is alien to him.
But the thing which really makes this tick are the performances and Henry Fonda is on exceptional form as Manny getting across that sense of being helpless with it etched on his face as things happen to him which he doesn't understand. You get a sense that from the minute he is officially charged Manny is so dazed and confused that he is shepherded through the system without really taking in what is going on. At the same time we have an equally good performance from Vera Miles as Rose as we watch her decline into depression, her looks diminishing whilst exhibiting various ticks and tell tale signs of struggling to deal with what is going on. It is because of the effectiveness of these performances that you are drawn into the situation and get that sense of fear that this could happen to you.
What this all boils down to is that "The Wrong Man" is for me up there with the best of Hitchcock's movies as it gets across that sense of fear that this could happen to you. And with this being a simple retelling of a true story it is one of Hitchcock's simplest movies but none the less effective for being so.