Alfred Hitchcock was fond of telling the story about how his father discouraged his son from even the slightest criminal impulse by having young Alfred locked in a police holding cell for a brief period--a terrifying experience Hitchcock never forgot. Much of the fear from that childhood incident resonates through The Wrong Man
, which is unique among Hitchcock's films in that it is based entirely on a factual case that occurred in New York City in January 1953. As Hitchcock states in a shadowy prologue, authenticity was his primary goal--including the use of actual names and locations from the case--and the film gains considerable power from Hitchcock's semi-documentary approach (a film noir style that was still in vogue when Hitchcock shot this film in 1957).
Henry Fonda is perfectly cast as the financially struggling nightclub musician who is mistakenly identified as a robber when he attempts to cash in his wife's life-insurance policy to pay for her much-needed dental work. Vera Miles is equally superb as the suffering wife, who ultimately cracks under the pressure of her husband's wrongful accusation and the drawn-out process of proving his innocence. Through all of this, Hitchcock pays close attention to the mundane details of police procedure, intensifying Fonda's desperation and the narrative tension that was Hitchcock's directorial trademark. As it happens, the strict adherence to factual detail--no matter how absurd or incredible--also renders The Wrong Man somewhat weaker than Hitchcock's classic plots, since in this case truth is decidedly stranger than fiction. Nevertheless, this is still a riveting film that fits quite nicely alongside Hitchcock's better-known films of the 1950s. (Interesting trivia: Miles--who would later appear in Psycho, was Hitchcock's first choice for the Kim Novak role in Vertigo, and Hitchcock was vocally annoyed when Miles's pregnancy prevented her from taking the role that could have made her a star.) --Jeff Shannon