Roommate Russ told me, as we settled down for this one, that I would find it “an un-Hitchcock Hitchcock film”. Very quickly I spotted exactly what he meant.
It’s definitely in Hitchcock’s style – a carefully unspooled mystery, moodily-lit scenes, and some innovative camera work. It’s also one of Hitchcock’s tales of An Innocent Man Trying To Clear His Name. But instead of being an action thriller starring a vivacious and suave hero, like with The 39 Steps, this is a much more methodical tale about a modest Everyman, trapped and left utterly at the mercy of a legal system.
It’s based on the true story of Christopher “Manny” Balestrero, a jazz musician caught up in a case of mistaken identity. Hitchcock changes very little of Balestrero’s story (as originally told in Life Magazine); Henry Fonda takes on the role of Balestrero, a standing bass player with a wife and two kids and a regular gig at the Stork Club. They live in a tiny apartment in Queens, but they’re happy – his two sons idolize him, as does his wife, and he dotes on them all as well. He also gets on great with his in-laws and pays regular visits to his mother over in New Jersey. Sure, the Stork Club doesn’t pay much and they sometimes struggle to make ends meet because of things like mortgage payments or doctor bills, but somehow they figure out how to make it work out. So when Manny’s wife Rose (Vera Miles) needs dental work, Manny has the idea to borrow against her life insurance policy, and stops by the insurance agency one afternoon.
However, that branch office had recently been hit by an armed robber, one who’d also hit a handful of other local businesses. And the clerk Manny speaks to thinks he looks a little familiar, and so do a couple of the other clerks across the room…one panicky call to the local precinct later, and Manny is met on his doorstep by three plainclothes detectives, politely but firmly asking if he wouldn’t mind coming down to the precinct right now and just answering some questions?
For the next hour, we watch Manny’s through the legal system through his eyes, and in excruciating detail. We see the calm and careful questioning from the detectives about his whereabouts, but we hear the threat in their voices. We watch the circumstantial evidence stack higher and higher. We see all the scary details of Manny’s arrest just after he sees them – the handcuffs, the inkpad on the fingerprint table, the shoes of the men all crammed into the paddy wagon with him, the hard bed in his pitifully small cell. We get excited over every possible alibi, and our hearts sink each time one falls through. Worst of all, we start to worry when the stress starts getting to Rose and she acts more and more erratic.
Wisely, even though Rose starts to break down, Manny doesn’t. The real Manny didn’t necessarily break down either; but Hitchcock could have easily gotten away with writing in a scene where a weeping Manny falls to his knees and prays for deliverance (the real Manny apparently did spend his whole night in central booking in prayer). But instead, except for a swoopy camera at one point meant to show Manny is dizzy, most of what we see during Manny’s arrest is Henry Fonda quietly insisting he’s innocent before he lapses into dumbstruck silence, and then the growing cornered-animal fear in his eyes as he’s taken to a prison and shuffled into a cell. He is utterly trapped, and the fear has paralyzed him. Even the one scene where Manny does pray, he just looks at picture of Jesus on the wall and silently mouths the words to a private prayer (to be fair, this is setting up a bit of trickery that I won’t spoil). It’s a beautifully restrained performance befitting a restrained and methodical story, about a genuinely good guy being treated like a criminal and not having any clue how to respond.
It’s also somehow a very un-Hollywood story, as well as an un-Hitchcock film. I initially wasn’t a fan of the final scene (about which I will keep mum) – I thought it was a little superfluous, and thought it could have skipped straight from the penultimate scene to Hitchcock’s final “where are they now” title card. Roommate Russ and I had a friendly debate about that after – he argued that it lent more emotional weight to Manny’s ordeal to actually see that scene. And I’m realizing he was right – leaving out that scene would have ended things on a much higher note, without letting us finally feel the fear and sorrow and loss that Manny’s panic was keeping him – and us – from feeling. The real Manny didn’t get a nice pat Hollywood ending; it made sense for Hitchcock not to give him one either.