The Wrong Man begins with a prologue, not a written one, but a scene with Alfred Hitchcock at a distance, barely visible in the light on a dark street, saying that the movie we are about to see is “a true story, every word of it.” Then come the credits, followed by a disclaimer where this is directly contradicted:
The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons, living or dead, is intended or should be inferred.
The story is about a man named Christopher Emanuel “Manny” Balestrero (Henry Fonda), who works at the Stork Club in New York as the bass player in the orchestra. When he gets off work, while riding the subway, he looks at an advertisement for an automobile promising family fun. For some reason, there is no advertisement suggesting that a bachelor might have fun with an automobile. But then, I guess a bachelor doesn’t need an automobile to have fun.
Then he looks at an advertisement for a bank, claiming to be a family bank. There is no advertisement claiming to be a bank for bachelors, so I don’t know where they would go to borrow money. But then, I guess bachelors don’t need to borrow money from a bank.
The movie continues to drive home the point that Manny is a family man. When he stops to get something to eat, the man behind the counter asks him, “How’s the family?” When he gets home, he brings in the milk left by the milkman, which is a nice family touch, but either Manny works really late, or the milkman makes his deliveries extra early. As he passes the bedroom where his two sons are sleeping, he looks in on them. Then he checks in on his wife Rose (Vera Miles). The next day, his mother calls, asking him to stop by. We later find out he has a sister and brother-in-law. I suppose the idea is that what will soon happen to him will disrupt everyone in his extended family, making it much worse than if it happened to a bachelor who grew up as an only child and whose parents are no longer living.
In looking at the ads mentioned above, it is clear that Manny would love to take out a loan from the family bank to buy the car and have some family fun. But that is just an idle dream for him. He pretends to play the horses, marking pretend bets, and then checking later to see how much he would have won. But his reality is dreary. He may have to take out a loan, not for a car, but rather so that Rose can have her wisdom teeth removed. And the reason his mother wants him to stop by is that “Pop” is not doing well.
Manny takes Rose’s life insurance policy to the company to get that loan. While there, he is mistaken for a man that held up the company on two previous occasions. They call the police after he leaves, and Manny is arrested and taken to the police station. A police detective assures him that an innocent man has nothing to worry about, that only the guilty have anything to fear. And yet, he is repeatedly identified as the man that held up one business or another, including the insurance company.
This is as unsurprising as it is unnerving. If a Mr. Jones is already known to the witness of a crime beforehand, and he then testifies that Jones committed that crime, we have good reason to trust his testimony. But if the witness had never seen Jones before the day of the crime, then his testimony to that effect should be treated with a fair amount of skepticism. I have read of studies in which psychologists staged crimes before a room full of students. In one, only 14% of the witnesses were able to correctly identify the “culprit.” In another staged crime, 60% of the witnesses in the classroom, including the professor, identified the wrong man as the one supposedly guilty of the faked assault. And yet, many an innocent man has been sent to prison on the basis of just such evidence alone.
There have been over a dozen times in my life where someone has mistaken me for someone else, saying he saw me at a store I never go to, or asked me how I enjoyed the concert, which I did not attend. I usually joke that I hope these doppelgängers behave themselves so that I don’t get blamed for something they did. But when watching this movie, recalling those times where I have been mistaken for someone else makes me squirm.
In a lot of movies, Manny would be arrested, locked up, arraigned, and bailed out in five minutes of screen time. But Hitchcock takes us through the whole process slowly, so that we experience the dread of handcuffs, bars, hard beds, and angular accommodations. On the day of his arraignment, he has to show up in court unshaven, which only adds to his humiliation.
After he is bailed out, thanks to money raised by his sister and brother-in-law, Rose begins having a nervous breakdown. She blames herself for what happened to Manny, but then she blames him, accusing him of borrowing money on a previous occasion so they could go on a vacation they couldn’t afford, something he had already admitted at the police station. So, it appears that some of Manny’s money problems were self-inflicted, contrary to what we thought at first.
Then, at his trial, the prosecuting attorney, in his opening statement, says he will show that Manny needed to borrow money to pay off the bookies, based on statements he made to the detectives. Manny looks at his lawyer, Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle), negatively shaking his head to indicate that it isn’t true. We heard Manny admit that he went to the race track a few times, but that is all. Did the detectives misunderstand him? Did they purposely make this up? Or were those supposedly pretend bets in fact real bets, and he was in trouble with the bookies? We never find out, since it ends in a mistrial.
The reason for the mistrial is that a juror expresses his impatience when O’Connor is cross-examining the eyewitnesses. There are two witnesses, a Mrs. James and a Miss Willis, who both work at the insurance company, and who had picked Manny out of a lineup. First, Mrs. James identifies Manny as the one that held up the insurance company where she worked. Then Miss Willis takes the stand. Manny’s lawyer asks her about the “alleged lineup,” to which there is an objection. At first, I thought it strange that he would make a disparaging remark like that about the lineup. We were able to see the men that were grouped together with Manny, and I saw nothing problematic about them. Perhaps the subsequent dialogue reveals his misgivings:
O’Connor: Were there any men in that alleged lineup you knew before that night?
[After an objection to his use of the word “alleged,” he continues.]
O’Connor: How many of the men did you know?
Miss Willis: One.
O’Connor: And who was that?
Miss Willis: Mrs. James’ husband.
Mrs. James’ husband! What kind of lineup is that? We saw the scene where the women picked Manny out of the lineup. So, why didn’t we hear Mrs. James say, “George! What are you doing here?”
Anyway, O’Connor then begins a tedious process of asking Miss Willis about the men in the lineup, including Mr. James. He asks what the various men were wearing, how tall they were, and how much they weighed. Who could be expected to remember such details? It is at this point that a juror asks, “Your Honor, do we have to sit here and listen to this?”
He took the words right out of my mouth! If this is the best O’Connor can do, I thought to myself, Manny is in trouble. Anyway, justified or not, the remark occasions the request for a mistrial, which is granted.
After the mistrial, Rose has a complete mental collapse, staring vacantly off into space. She talks about how “they” will find Manny guilty no matter what he does. Manny has to put her in an “institution.” However, he voiced similar sentiments himself when two of the men that might have provided him with an alibi turned up dead. He tells O’Connor, “You know, like someone was stacking the cards against us.” We don’t take his remark seriously, but it is intended to prepare us for what is to come; for it clearly suggests that there is a baleful, supernatural influence working against him, which can only be thwarted by a countervailing supernatural force for good.
And so it is that in what thus far has been an engrossing movie, there is a complete narrative rupture. Manny’s mother tells him he should pray. He says he already has prayed. And we know he has. When first arrested, he has to remove all the items from his pocket. One such item is a Rosary. Any man that would carry a Rosary around in his coat pocket is definitely religious. During the trial, we see him holding the Rosary in his hands, under the table, presumably saying the prayers. And so far, those prayers have come to naught. Nevertheless, his mother says, “My son, I beg you to pray.”
Manny goes into the next room where he looks at a picture of Jesus on the wall. We see him gazing at it as his lips move. His image is superimposed over that of a man walking down the street. He comes closer and closer until Manny’s face coincides with the face of the man in the street. They have roughly similar features.
Well, the man tries to rob a store, and the owners subdue him and have him arrested. At the police station, one of the detectives working Manny’s case notices the similar appearance of that man to that of Manny. The end result is that Manny is freed.
This miracle ruins the movie. And it is especially presumptuous, given Hitchcock’s claim that the story is true. Yes, it was probably true that Manny’s mother told him to pray, and right after that the holdup man was arrested. But given the way it is filmed, there can be no doubt that there has been divine intervention, something Hitchcock could hardly guarantee. Maybe that’s why there was a disclaimer.
We never minded when we saw Manny praying with the Rosary. Religious people pray in times of stress. And if he had subsequently been freed when the man was arrested later on in the film, we would not have felt obliged to see that as resulting from a supernatural cause. But the scene involving Manny’s face superimposed over the holdup man as Manny prayed to the picture of Jesus makes it impossible to interpret that as anything other than a genuine miracle.
In Chapter XV of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the author reflects upon the fact that the degree of credence we accord to miracles depends largely on when they are supposed to have occurred. He admits that in the early days of Christianity, the intervention of God was more necessary than it is today:
If the truth of any of those miracles is appreciated by their apparent use and propriety, every age had unbelievers to convince, heretics to confute, and idolatrous nations to convert; and sufficient motives might always be produced to justify the interposition of Heaven. And yet, since every friend to revelation is persuaded of the reality, and every reasonable man is convinced of the cessation, of miraculous powers, it is evident that there must have been some period in which they were either suddenly or gradually withdrawn from the Christian church.
And so it is, Gibbon goes on to say, that it is only with reluctance that even the most devout will admit to miracles in present circumstances:
In modern times, a latent and even involuntary scepticism adheres to the most pious dispositions. Their admission of supernatural truths is much less an active consent than a cold and passive acquiescence. Accustomed long since to observe and to respect the variable order of Nature, our reason, or at least our imagination, is not sufficiently prepared to sustain the visible action of the Deity.
And if Gibbon was right when saying this in the eighteenth century, then all the more so is this true in the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries. People might still accept miracles that occurred in subsequent centuries, but Gibbon’s expression “visible action of the Deity” is significant. What counts as a miracle no longer is something utterly contrary to what can occur in nature, such as when Joshua made the sun stand still. Rather, it is something compatible with natural causes, but ascribed to the hand of God nevertheless. We might say of such miracles that they involve the invisible action of the Deity. When an airplane crashes, and all are killed except a baby, some may say that it was a miracle the infant survived, but we know that the skeptical will have no trouble attributing the event to mere chance.
What Gibbon said of real life also applies to the movies. We not only accept, but also look forward to, the depiction of miracles in film as they occurred in biblical times, whether it be that of Moses parting the Red Sea, or that of Jesus walking on water. But when a miracle supposedly takes place in a movie that is set in contemporaneous times, we do not see a marvelous violation of the laws of nature, but rather an outcome that could have happened naturally, but which the movie encourages us to regard as a miracle, usually because someone prays just before the event takes place, a conclusion we would never have come to otherwise.
For example, in Made for Each Other (1939), a nun encourages Carol Lombard to pray to a statue of Jesus that the serum for her baby will arrive in time to save its life, even though there is a blizzard raging so severe that pilot who is going to bring the serum will be risking his life to make that flight. She does pray to that statue of Jesus, after which the pilot, who has had to bail out of his plane, manages to get to a farmhouse, where the farmer calls the hospital to tell them the serum has arrived. Absent the prayer to an image of Jesus just prior to these events, we would never have concluded that God intervened to save her baby. We’d have simply said to ourselves, “Well, that was a close call!”
After he has been exonerated, Manny goes to the insane asylum to tell Rose the good news, but she continues to stare off into space, saying it doesn’t matter. He says to the nurse, “I guess I was hoping for a miracle.” She replies, “They happen, but it takes time.” The epilogue tells us that Rose was released from the hospital after two years.
Just as we were not bothered by the Rosary and Manny’s prayers during the trial, so too do we think nothing of this conversation about a miracle regarding Rose’s recovery. People speak of miracles figuratively all the time, meaning nothing more than a positive outcome that is unlikely. So, it is only the literal miracle involving the picture of Jesus that ruins the movie.
There are movies, even those set in the twenty-first century, where miracles are perhaps more acceptable. If the movie lets us know from the outset that it is religious in nature, such as God’s Not Dead (2014), where God, we are invited to believe, keeps a reverend from being able to leave town so that he can get the dying atheist professor to ask for God’s forgiveness and be saved (i.e., so we can see the atheist crawl in the end), the miracle is at least in keeping with what has come before. It doesn’t matter whether you regard this as a good movie or not. The point is that the miracle is not unexpected, since we have been prepared for something like that from the beginning.
In the case of The Wrong Man, however, we have not been so prepared. Up to the point of the miracle, this is the most realistic movie Hitchcock ever directed, and thus the fantastic miracle really seems out of place. When out of the blue, a miracle occurs as a means to resolving a dramatic difficulty, it comes across as a deus ex machina, a contrived and artificial solution to a problem that seems unsolvable. In the case of The Wrong Man, however, the miracle could have been left out, and we would have accepted the arrest of the man who actually held up the insurance company as something that could easily have happened. So, we get the disadvantage of a deus ex machina, as something contrived, without any benefit, since there was no need for such a drastic solution to Manny’s problem in the first place.
In addition to movies that announce their religious themes up front, I suppose it is worth mentioning that we never object to miracles in a comedy, as in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). And whatever misgivings we have about miracles ordinarily understood, in which God intervenes for someone’s benefit, we usually are much more receptive to evil miracles, as it were, as when Satan intervenes for his own wicked reasons, as in The Exorcist (1973).
The problem with depicting a miracle in modern times is not only, as Gibbon says, that we are reticent to accept the occurrence of genuine miracles in the modern age. It is also the fact that the supposed occurrence of such encourages reflection on the problem of evil, to wit, if there really is an all-powerful, loving God, then why is there so much sin and suffering in the world? For a lot of religious people, this is not a problem. They have their pat answers, involving such things as free will, God’s divine plan, and the sin of questioning the ways of God in the first place.
But for others, even those that are otherwise religious, such thoughts are disturbing, precipitating a whole raft of questions they would rather not think about: Why did God let all these bad things happen to Manny and Rose in the first place, when he could have made sure the bad guy was caught right away? Why was a prayer necessary to bring about the miracle, and if it was, why did Manny’s previous prayers not suffice? What was God waiting for? And given the success he had the first time, why didn’t Manny just go back to the picture of Jesus and work up another miracle to get Rose out of the mental institution right away? (The movie says Rose was all right after a couple of years, but I have read that she never really did completely recover.)
All these questions interfere with our enjoyment of the movie. And this is regrettable, since the movie would have been just fine with no miracle at all.